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November 12th, 2011
10:00 PM ET

My Take: Keep government out of mind-reading business

Editor's Note: Paul Root Wolpe, Ph.D., is director of Emory University’s Center for Ethics.

By Paul Root Wolpe, Special to CNN

(CNN) - “My thoughts, they roam freely. Who can ever guess them?”

So goes an old German folk song. But imagine living in a world where someone can guess your thoughts, or even know them for certain. A world where science can reach into the deep recesses of your brain and pull out information that you thought was private and inaccessible.

Would that worry you?

If so, then start worrying. The age of mind reading is upon us.

Neuroscience is advancing so rapidly that, under certain conditions, scientists can use sophisticated brain imaging technology to scan your brain and determine whether you can read a particular language, what word you are thinking of, even what you are dreaming about while you are asleep.

The research is still new, and the kinds of information scientists can find through brain imaging are still simple. But the recent pace of progress in neuroscience has been startling and new studies are being published all the time.

In one experiment, researchers at Carnegie Mellon looked at images of people’s brains when they were thinking of some common objects – animals, body parts, tools, vegetables – and recorded which areas of their brains activated when they thought about each object.

The scientists studied patterns of brain activity while subjects thought about 58 such objects. Then they predicted what the person’s brain would look like if researchers gave them a brand new object, like “celery.”

The scientists’ predictions were surprisingly accurate.

Many scholars predicted as recently as a few years ago that we would never get this far. Now we have to ask: If we can tell what words you are thinking of, is it much longer before we will be able to read complex thoughts?

In another experiment, researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, Germany, sought out a group of “lucid dreamers” - people who remain aware that they are dreaming and even maintain some control over their dreams while they sleep.

The researchers asked the subjects to clench either their right hand or left hand in their dreams, then scanned their brain while they slept. The subjects’ motor cortex, the part of the brain that controls movement, lit up in the same manner it would if a person clenched their left hand while awake – even though the actual hand of the sleeping subjects never moved.

The images revealed that the subjects were dreaming of clenching their left fists.

Throughout human history, the inner workings of our minds were impenetrable, known only to us and, perhaps, to God. No one could see what you were thinking, or know what you were feeling, unless you chose to reveal it to them.

In fact, the idea of being able to decipher what is going on in that three pounds of grey mush between our ears seemed an impossible task even a couple of decades ago.

Now, for the first time in human history, we are peering into the labyrinth of the mind and pulling out information, perhaps even information you would rather we did not know.

Neuroscientists are actively developing technologies to create more effective lie detectors, to determine if people have been at a crime scene, or to predict who may be more likely to engage in violent crime.

As the accuracy and reliability of these experiments continue to improve, the temptation will be strong to use these techniques in counter-terrorism, in the courtroom, perhaps even at airports.

And if brain imaging for lie detection is shown to be reliable, intelligence agencies may want to use it to discover moles, employers may want to use it to screen employees, schools to uncover vandals or cheaters.

But should we allow it?

I believe not. The ability to read our thoughts threatens the last absolute bastion of privacy that we have. If my right to privacy means anything, it must mean the right to keep my innermost thoughts safe from the prying eyes of the state, the military or my employer.

My mind must remain mine alone, and my skull an inviolable zone of privacy.

Right now, our right to privacy – even the privacy of our bodies – ends when a judge issues a warrant. The court can order your house searched, your computer files exposed, and your diary read. It can also order you to submit to a blood test, take a drug screen, or to provide a DNA sample.

There is no reason, right now, that it could not also order a brain scan.

Right now, the technology is not reliable enough for the courts to order such tests. But the time is coming, and soon.

Eventually, courts will have to decide whether it is allowable to order a defendant to get a brain scan. There is even an interesting question of whether forcing me to reveal my inner thoughts through a brain scan might violate my Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.

But not even a court order should be enough to violate your right to a private inner life. The musings of my mind and heart are the most precious and private possessions that I have, the one thing no one can take away from me.

Let them search my house, if they must, or take some blood, if that will help solve a case. But allowing the state to probe our minds ends even the illusion of individual liberty, and gives government power that is far too easy to abuse.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Root Wolpe.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Culture & Science • Ethics

soundoff (999 Responses)
  1. Nadine

    I hope this will never happen because it is utter enslavement of mankind..We would be just like the BORG under government control part of a collective.

    November 13, 2011 at 7:35 am |
  2. Psacual

    if they need to read my mind the government is in trouble.
    i give them permission to read my mind.. any time, like it will make a difference.

    November 13, 2011 at 7:32 am |
    • MikeL

      Can we take you word on that?

      November 13, 2011 at 8:08 am |
  3. dash

    umm... guess what? people already can. been read by a couple buddhist monks and nuns– let me tell ya– they can definitely read minds.

    November 13, 2011 at 7:31 am |
  4. Alan Page

    These research would be nice to prove spiritual life... to prove the psichic phenomena...that 2 individualities could use the same body.

    November 13, 2011 at 7:28 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      What is "psichic"? That is not an english word!

      November 13, 2011 at 9:03 am |
  5. Colonel Thompson

    Of course the government will say 'Yes' in the name of 'national security'. I say 'no'. Keep your laws off my body and mind.

    November 13, 2011 at 7:27 am |
    • Notyourpal

      This is pure drivel.

      November 13, 2011 at 7:29 am |
  6. Colonel Thompson

    Of course the government will say 'Yes' in the name of 'national security'. I say 'no'. Keep your laws of my body and mind.

    November 13, 2011 at 7:25 am |
  7. Allen

    "Throughout human history, the inner workings of our minds were impenetrable, known only to us and, perhaps, to God."

    I read to that point before deciding the response below was appropriate, posting it and moving on:

    U SCARED, BRO?

    November 13, 2011 at 7:19 am |
  8. El Kababa

    I am as worried about the use global corporations will make of this technology as I am of what government might do with it. Scanning a persons brain while you show him different products, different commercials, and different print ads seems like an ideal way to design marketing materials that will bypass the rational mind and plant ideas without the consumers conscious knowledge.

    I have some control over government with my vote. I have absolutely no control over global corporations.

    One thing that might actually make the world a better place would be a foolproof way of knowing if someone is lying. That would transform business deals, the justice system, and political campaigns.

    November 13, 2011 at 7:18 am |
    • PBanta

      This kind of mind control's been going on for decades. How else would you explain the popularity of the leisure suit back in the '70's?

      November 13, 2011 at 7:44 am |
  9. Bill

    Sigh.. if it's being talked about on CNN it's very dated knowledge as far as military is concerned. Obviously. Obviously. Obviously.

    And to answer the question, I really don't care if government can "read minds", they already know every detail about our lives through the internet, facebook, etc. They are just clowns with toys that like to spy and make up stories. They have no real power.

    November 13, 2011 at 7:15 am |
  10. Karloff

    Wearing hats will come back into vogue–except these hats will be made of lead.

    November 13, 2011 at 7:15 am |
    • PBanta

      Oh, I'm stocking up on Reynold's Wrap already!

      November 13, 2011 at 7:45 am |
  11. Kathy

    Not too worried. Just like someone can beat the supposed 'lie detector', so too will we be able to block thoughts. They may be able to read minds, but they can't control them........yet.

    November 13, 2011 at 7:12 am |
  12. CaptCancun

    Since it is already too late to decide whether to allow it or not we should therefore stick to thinking about good things and not evil things. Or else...

    November 13, 2011 at 7:09 am |
    • Mark Taylor

      I"It's the Stay-Puft marshmallow man. It just sorta popped in there. I tried to think of the most harmless thing. Something I loved from my childhood. Something that could never, ever possibly destroy us. Mr. Stay Puft"

      November 13, 2011 at 7:17 am |
    • PBanta

      Better than a giant Snooki!

      November 13, 2011 at 7:33 am |
  13. waycist

    now and again I'll think to myself "I know you're reading my mind",,,,,, just in case

    November 13, 2011 at 7:08 am |
  14. Jimbo

    Think of a brick wall, brick wall, brick wall...

    November 13, 2011 at 7:07 am |
  15. MightyMoo

    Lets see, think what the US government did with X-ray machines when some jerk decided to fly airplanes in to buildings. Now imagine what the US government will do with machines that read minds. I don't care what country I live in, my mind and thoughts are off limits to everyone but who I choose to verbally speak or write to when sharing them.

    November 13, 2011 at 6:56 am |
  16. Dr Bill Toth

    People will give up the right for the illusion or promise of "safety" and/or "national Security" – the same reasons we've given up soooo many other rights. privileges and freedoms. Live With Intention, DrBillTothCom/blog

    November 13, 2011 at 6:54 am |
  17. Above it ALL

    The govt. doesen't have enough collective sense to read a newspaper and take care of all the bad news in it. Tell the govt. to get fukkked!!!

    November 13, 2011 at 6:53 am |
    • Kathy

      Right. To paraphrase Ben Franklin, "Those who will give up essential liberty for a little temporary safety....deserve neither."

      November 13, 2011 at 7:17 am |
  18. Conrad Miller

    Can you smell the hubris?

    November 13, 2011 at 6:50 am |
    • Mirosal

      I smell something ... no wait, that's just the double-bean burritos I had last night .. my bad!! lol

      November 13, 2011 at 6:52 am |
  19. escher7

    I read concern, crazy, worried, skeptical – but I don't read any way of stopping these kinds of potential dangers to our freedom. Imagine if Hitler had these toys. What guarantee do we have that the world powers will always be benevolent?

    November 13, 2011 at 6:49 am |
  20. kyrunner

    this couldnt be true. try tapping into the mind of a woman? haha, theyd blow them machines up

    November 13, 2011 at 6:48 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.