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. opinionguru

    WHAT? This ranks up there with, "Is your Pet Psychic?" .....Only on CNN ....The Children's News Network!

    November 13, 2011 at 9:00 am |
  2. us1776

    Ok, I'm thinking of a number. What is it?


    November 13, 2011 at 8:59 am |
    • SciGuy


      November 13, 2011 at 9:14 am |
    • Jen


      November 13, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
  3. 17701774

    Hmmm... considering the people who have large imaginations would likely end up falsley implicated, and that people who feel more empathy are sometimes more likely to consider themselves 'bad people' as they have more guilt, why do I have a feeling these types of intrusions would create a society of walking computers? People would begin suppressing their sub-conciouses and I am pretty sure that would equate to increased sheudenfreud in their every day personalities. Also, sometimes the suggestion of the thought could create the thought itself. Until this science was perfected, many people would end up falsely accused and animosity towards the government would probably increase. Also, considering that people's brains work differently, and doctors still know very little about the human brain, the science would never be perfected. Some people have different parts of the brain that work differently from other parts...no two parts are alike. People would also start to feel threatened by the government (talk about invasion of privacy...) and form groups that would riot against them. Not a smart move.

    November 13, 2011 at 8:57 am |
  4. Charlie

    Excellent column. Seems the age depicted in films like "Minority Report" and "Inception" is indeed upon us. Scientists are still in that heady, ethically blurry zone that so often accompanies discovery–more concerned with "can we" than with "ought we." I foresee some interesting court battles over "thought privacy" and "dream privacy" as we attempt to gain our ethical foothold under the weight of such issues. Old George Orwell is seeming more prescient all the time.

    November 13, 2011 at 8:55 am |
  5. Earl Weaver

    Mind reading needs to start in Washington. Probably like reading a comic book.

    November 13, 2011 at 8:51 am |
    • 17701774

      I agree- this would only be useful when used as an interviewing tool for politicians!

      November 13, 2011 at 8:59 am |
    • 17701774

      I agree- this would only be useful when used as an interviewing tool for politicians! 😉

      November 13, 2011 at 11:55 am |
  6. Atheist 1#

    Corporation will use the the technology to sell us advertising. And Government and court for spying and crime.

    November 13, 2011 at 8:50 am |
  7. Rabbi Green

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

    Thats the most important part of this piece.........

    November 13, 2011 at 8:47 am |
    • Jake

      well put.

      November 13, 2011 at 11:53 am |
  8. dean

    I don't understand why the article is cast this way. I would interesting to ready about the capabilities of understanding minds is just around the corner. To suggest that governments will the pounce is some deluded conservative. I would stay far away from Mr. Wolpe classes, I think he's a bit paranoid and like a tea-party member. If Governments, sir, are corporations far behind??

    November 13, 2011 at 8:46 am |
  9. Mirosal

    I think the whole thing is a hoax. The author fell asleep watching "Minority Report" and when he awoke, came up with this article. This is about "science" (and I use that term loosely) what is it doing in the belief blog?

    November 13, 2011 at 8:45 am |
  10. Joan

    Scary stuff. Makes you realise how inadequate the Bill of Rights is, doesn't it?

    November 13, 2011 at 8:45 am |
    • Joan

      Add to that, I wouldn't even want it for medical reasons, if I was in a coma. Doctors are intrusive enough as it is without giving them access to your thoughts as well.

      November 13, 2011 at 8:47 am |
  11. Atheist 1#


    November 13, 2011 at 8:43 am |
    • brian

      this song is awesome!

      November 13, 2011 at 8:47 am |
    • Atheist 1#

      M O O spells Moon

      November 13, 2011 at 8:53 am |
  12. Bo

    A lot of these posts are interesting, some even humoous, however I don't know how this is a belief article, it is about real science. As a matter of fact, to a limited degree this technology is already being used with prosthetics, and has been for years. Nobody really needs to worry about this technology, it would only be used in crimnal court cases, if it ever got that far. A person would have to be hooked up to a lot of wires and in a controled enviroment. Any advancement in this technology so as to read random people's thoughts(people not hooked up to a machine) is so far in the future everybody here will be dead, so don't worry. Even with prosthetics, a reading device, which receives only certain signals, needs to be attached to the person.

    November 13, 2011 at 8:43 am |
    • AtheistSteve

      Don't underestimate technological advances. The functions of a simple casio calculator used to fill an entire building. Mind reading devices might one day be virtually undetectable like hidden cameras.

      November 13, 2011 at 8:48 am |
  13. RunnerX

    so it doesnt bother people that every commercial on television and many shows have a whole team of psycologists basically subliminally marketing since forever, but actual mind control is a no no? American ignorance never ceases to amaze.

    November 13, 2011 at 8:42 am |
  14. brian

    It's funny. We are on the verge of mind reading, yet, we still have not found a cure to cancer. Funny how science works.

    November 13, 2011 at 8:41 am |
    • SciGuy

      "funny" is not the right word.

      November 13, 2011 at 9:00 am |
    • Emilly

      b.ajay prasadnaayudu,poem bgadunai. especially నా తలకాయలో / వాటి ప్రియురాళ్ళ ముఖాల్ని తుడిచేశాను /నిద్రలో పాకి /నా ప్రియురాళ్ళ ముఖాల్ని అవి తినేశాయి chaalaa bagundi.b.ajay prasad

      April 3, 2012 at 9:10 pm |
  15. Rebecca

    Anyone who is saying that this is irrelevant is very near sighted. Technology develops exponentially and the fact that we have gotten even this far in such a short time is incredibly frightening. Whether full blown mind reading will occur during our generation is hard to say, but it is a real possibility with how rapidly our knowledge is expanding and it shouldn't be ignored. The whole idea of government potentially doing brain scans to look at memories and thoughts fully disgusts me, but it disgusts me more because I can actually see them doing it. Our rights seem to be consistently being thrown at the window lately and I don't think they would hesitate to employ this technology, no matter how unethical. I can't say that I have anything to hide, but my mind is the only thing that is truly MINE. Having that invaded would be more devastating than anything I can imagine.

    November 13, 2011 at 8:38 am |
  16. jerry

    I would probally give up on life if they could do this...A person has a right to privacy not only is your mind your last barrier your last sanctuary The one place where your never judged the place where you can think anything and be perfectly comfortable. no more than that its a place to truly be yourself now what if someone put a camera in your bedroom for all the world to see would you act with the same passion with your wife would you tell her your most intimate feelings if you knew there was a chance that all the world could hear or see you. now if someone could read your mind would you have have the same dreams the same thoughts knowing that whatever you Imagine could be used against you or shown to the world or would you hold back your thoughts and dreams knowing that you can never really be Free To Think to Feel....Give Me Liberty.

    November 13, 2011 at 8:35 am |
    • AtheistSteve

      And yet this is exactly what theists believe their God is doing 24/7. Go figure.....

      November 13, 2011 at 8:39 am |
    • SciGuy

      ASteve, you are correct. The omniscient God knows your every thought. And holds you accountable for them. God has this prerogative, govts don't.

      November 13, 2011 at 9:05 am |
    • AtheistSteve

      I hope you were being facetious otherwise you should change your handle to PseudoSciGuy. I don't grant that prerogative to anything...God or not it's still an invasion of privacy and a violation of free thought. Censorship of the mind = God is watching you.

      November 13, 2011 at 12:18 pm |
  17. Harvey

    I have seen a short clip of moving images that were reconstructed from the brain activity of people looking at film clips. These were amazingly close to the actual images the people were looking at. Scenes included a plane landing, a herd of elephants, and man walking across a room, and more. The reconstructed images were amazingly close to the actual to the actual scenes.

    While it will be quite some time before this can be done from a distance; it shows the potential is there. The author is quite right in being concerned about an invasion of privacy and the advent of the thought police.

    There is also the flip side of the coin to be considered; artificial telepathy where communications can go both ways. Spam producers will love it. Just imagine advertisements cluttering up the inside of your skull instead of your email in box.

    November 13, 2011 at 8:33 am |
  18. MikeInIndy

    It's just a matter of time. Believe that.

    November 13, 2011 at 8:31 am |
    • opinionguru

      Like world peace, a cure to the common cold, an end to war ........it's inevitable!

      November 13, 2011 at 9:04 am |
  19. pla

    better yet: duh, duh, duh, yadda, duh, duh duh, yadda duh, duh, duh etc.

    November 13, 2011 at 8:31 am |
  20. sandiego1969

    First there needs to be minds in government, then they can work on the learning to read part.

    November 13, 2011 at 8:31 am |
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About this blog

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.