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. Quid Malborg in Plano TX

    Wear a tinfoil hat and retro-fit your house & car as Gauss cages. Problem solved. ;-P

    November 13, 2011 at 8:30 am |
    • Quid Malborg in Plano TX

      ~ Faraday cages. My bad!

      November 13, 2011 at 8:32 am |
  2. pla

    if someone was reading the minds of the american people all they would proberly get was this:...........................................................................

    November 13, 2011 at 8:30 am |
  3. jim

    If this is the best the ethicist can come up with, he should be worried, about his job.

    November 13, 2011 at 8:30 am |
  4. beelzebubba

    A country that blindly follows a president like 'Dubbya' into an insanely expensive and completely useless war like Iraq will allow a 'little privacy invasion' in exchange for 'security'. And a country that keeps corrupt congressmen in office who allow businesses to selling details of our private interests, desires and relationships with minimal restrictions or oversight under the pretext that it 'creates jobs' or that 'companies naturally do what is best for us all because it's in the company's best interests' is going to have a hard time dealing with technology that is even more invasive. The sad part is, mind-reading technology will never be applied to the ones who should be watched... the law-makers.

    November 13, 2011 at 8:26 am |
    • Miss Demeanor

      But all problems will evaporate like unicorn tears if we just elect evangelicals like Perry. Remember when Dubbya was in office and Gawwwwwwwd was Uhmurika's co-pilot. I'm just sayin'.

      November 13, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
  5. hey hey

    all hype, can they tell the difference when they say box and i think about a wooden box vs card board one hummm rofl NOOO. This is like super subjective stuff. What instead of a lie detector test they will do a brain detector test? lol I could probably think of something while they ask.

    November 13, 2011 at 8:26 am |
  6. Steve

    This guy is a sensationalist. He wanted publicity. Science is no where near this.

    November 13, 2011 at 8:25 am |
    • Miss Demeanor

      He's an ethicist. His role is to consider the ethical implications of things before it is too late. Duh.

      November 13, 2011 at 8:28 am |
  7. Frank

    If science will be able to detect thoughts – memories – , how can they distinguish between memories and fantasies. It seems to me they both come from the same place and work the same way .

    November 13, 2011 at 8:25 am |
  8. terry

    The Future Attribute Screening Technology is already taking names...thanks to the Patriot Act, the police state is here....

    November 13, 2011 at 8:21 am |
  9. Malik

    This may happen after 1,000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 years

    November 13, 2011 at 8:20 am |
    • AtheistSteve

      Hmmm...a totally ridiculous number that surpasses the Big Rip where nothing but scattered stray photons will remain in the entire universe.

      November 13, 2011 at 8:27 am |
    • Jake

      his point is it will never happen.

      November 13, 2011 at 11:48 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      Hey Jake: AtheistSteve is not a moron unlike you have proven yourself to be by your post! He was pointing out the absurdity in the number!

      November 13, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  10. Robin McLeish

    SITUATIONS make people think and act in a certain ways. For example, if you are robbed and now broke, your mind will think of ways to get out of that situation because survival is the root of all thought. If a person is in such a bad situation, people will resort to crime to survive. Living in a jail cell is better than dying, there might be a chance to get out. With the banks currently causing fraud, it trickles down to the people who are paying life changing events to survive while the banks get a small fine of the money the stole (cost of business). This is the thing that is really not fair and should not be controlled by the government. A person with money (who made it honestly and was not frauded) will have better thoughts than others. Everyone is born innocent. Situations (events) in our lifes create our thoughts and they should not be held against anyone, for we are all trying to survive and make a good life.

    November 13, 2011 at 8:17 am |
    • Robin

      PS. Also, watch that the media doesn't make you think their way only. Are the polls they take really reported correctly? Maybe we should do a vote count on those like in the elections.

      November 13, 2011 at 8:22 am |
  11. wisdom4u2

    Now that's funny! What minds? The majority of humans are nuttier than walnut trees, so who would even want to know what the hell their thinking? Ha! What a waste of time that will be!

    November 13, 2011 at 8:14 am |
    • Scholarly

      More than that- we would ALL be locked up, for each person is categorically insane from the perspective of another human being or organization that holds beliefs contrary to any other individual.

      November 13, 2011 at 8:27 am |
    • wisdom4u2

      @ scholarly ~~~~ Not necessarily, most of my friends beliefs are totally different from my own and we've all been friends for most of our lives. ‘Insane’ is too strong of a word for most of my friends….nutty is more fitting. : )

      November 13, 2011 at 10:06 am |
  12. Neuroscience Grad

    This is amusing. We really don't even have much of a clue how the molecular basis of learning works, but a couple of generalized fMRI images somehow means we can read minds? Far from it. If this is the 2010 published study I'm thinking of, it was actually a comparison of humans to monkeys in how they pick out certain objects from their visual field (probably why he failed to link the study in his story). Obviously this is written by an ethics guy and not someone actually involved in the field.

    November 13, 2011 at 8:13 am |
    • Neuroscience Grad

      Also, Emory has a hell of a neuroscience research program which includes work with primates (rather than just lab mice). I'm sure his colleagues there are banging their heads on their desks this morning.

      November 13, 2011 at 8:17 am |
  13. SixDegrees

    I don't really see a danger here. First, the ability to actually read thoughts is very, very far off; the authors examples don't even come close to such a feat. Even if it becomes possible, thinking about something is not illegal; only actions can result in charges being brought. I expect that these technologies, like polygraphs, will remain inadmissible in court for a variety of reasons, although – again, like polygraphs – they may find a role as props used in interrogation theater to intimidate the suspect.

    November 13, 2011 at 8:11 am |
    • Robert

      So when your feeling threatened and thinking of defending yourself while the (interrogators) are leaning on you now you are tagged as prone to violence and you spiral slowly down. You are correct thinking is not a crime (Yet), but what the author promotes is the objective of precognition through this research and that is not good and not safe for humans.
      Someone pointed out that these people in government cannot even balance a budget and this is true. Do you want these same fools to be at the controls of thought reading and deciding if you are good or bad? Consider some of the most corrupt and unethical people in the nation (government officials) will be deciding if your thoughts are OK?
      Free Thinking = The New Al Quaida

      November 13, 2011 at 8:23 am |
  14. davenyusa

    They can't even read a phuqing "health care bill" before it passes Congress, so how the phuque do you think they will be able to read minds?

    November 13, 2011 at 8:08 am |
  15. Stevo


    November 13, 2011 at 8:05 am |
  16. what?

    This article is about as relevant as one debating whether it's ethical to use government-sponsored time machines to travel to prehistoric times, harvest sabre tooth tiger claws, and return to the present and hawk them as fertility talismans to impotent pandas.

    November 13, 2011 at 8:05 am |
    • terry

      You should research what our government is already doing before you make such a statement....
      google.... Future Attribute Screening Technology

      November 13, 2011 at 8:17 am |
  17. Miguel


    November 13, 2011 at 8:03 am |
  18. SpunkyDerWondermonkey

    What do you mean "allow"? What a hoot! If they can, quite simply they will. Our "rights", quite recently have gone by the way of the dodo, i.e. extinct. If you believe for one second that if this technology was available and we could stop the government from using it with a mere law, I believe that you are delusional.

    November 13, 2011 at 8:02 am |
    • SixDegrees

      Polygraphs have never been admissible as evidence in court. Your argument just crumbled into a dust heap.

      November 13, 2011 at 8:13 am |
  19. MikeL

    marosal works for the N.S.A.

    November 13, 2011 at 8:02 am |
    • Mirosal

      wow.. you really ARE paranoid aren't you? I do not work for any gov't agency. I'm a complete civilian, have been for 7 years. I work in the civilian world, get a regular paycheck from a civilian job. I'm sure you and I both get gov't checks every month.. yours is for that mental SSI stuff, whereas mine is a Navy retirement check ..BIG difference.

      November 13, 2011 at 8:10 am |
    • Mirosal

      ok you got me, I lied. I am at NSA- HQ in Virginia right now, I've alredy located your IP address, and the sattelite is over you now. We CAN and WILL see all. In 24 hours we'll even know what kind of TP and toothpaste you use. Thanks for "outing" yourself, comrade!

      November 13, 2011 at 8:21 am |
    • MikeL

      Mirosal , Mirosal. I have been told that it will be people like you that will make it very hard for the people that do go through these thypes of thing to get the truth and find the truth. I have already told many time already that if you dont belive me just come to Danbury CT, 06810 or find someone the is near here and they will see for themself. If this were going on would it change the way you felt about the US. you seem scared

      November 13, 2011 at 8:22 am |
    • Mirosal

      There ARE a few things in this world that do frighten me. Unfortunately, you just didn't make that final cut to that list .. sorry. So let me get this straight ... the whole town is an experiment for this "endeavour"? You're making the claim, show us your sources, your evidence. put a link to it right here, let us ALL read it.

      November 13, 2011 at 8:42 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      @MikeL: Who told you? The voices in your head? Have you considered that you may be suffering from something called schiz.ophrenia? That guy that shot Gabby Gifford had similar delusions to you and look what he did...you're on the same track little boy!

      November 13, 2011 at 9:00 am |
  20. Miguel

    Been there than that, but it will make people more sincere and the world safer actually.

    November 13, 2011 at 8:02 am |
    • Robert

      More enslaved is the word you were looking for not sincere. You really want to sit and tell me you've never wanted to knock someone out, but didnt because it was not right, or felt threatened and thought of what you would do to defend yourself, but did not have to? So now you thought it and now you are tagged as prone to violence? So everyone is a criminal and the instinct to defend yourself becomes a possible future crime.
      This whole idea is bad it is all bad and no good will ever come of it NONE. It's sole purpose will be for abuse and oppression. Imagine the thoughts of the people who control this technology who are above it.

      November 13, 2011 at 8:15 am |
    • Shire

      No, you will come to know a greater fear than ever before. Your world will become quite dangerous indeed little one with the advancement of technology. Humans are not ready for such things, and the power will be absolutely corrupting.

      November 13, 2011 at 8:15 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.