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. Stratmaster

    Where are all those commenters who always say "if you have nothing to hide you shouldn't be worried" now?

    November 13, 2011 at 9:24 am |
    • Robert Barber

      That was always a dumb argument anyway. To believe that only criminals are interested in privacy, you would have to believe that congress passed the 4th amendment solely to benefit criminals.

      November 13, 2011 at 9:31 am |
  2. SteveJ

    I was once called a liar because of a false positive on a lie detector test. I will never believe the results of these machines or any other means of "mind reading" could be 100% accurate.

    November 13, 2011 at 9:23 am |
    • Jake

      I detect you are lying.

      November 13, 2011 at 11:58 am |
  3. Jack Anderson

    Where the Hell have you all been since the 1930's- The government has been doing this since then. It's just that its been a Top Secret Weapon until now. Wake up!!!!

    November 13, 2011 at 9:19 am |
  4. Robert Barber

    The problem with this kind of technology is not only that it is unethical and illegal, but it probably doesn't work in the way in which it was intended.

    Right now you these agencies, who don't respect the laws of the country and are saved from a wave of precedent-setting court cases only because they operate in secret, using very sketchy methods of identifying U.S. citizens as potential threats to national security–political beliefs and psychological profiling, for example. These identifications are demonstrably incorrect. The tens and hundreds of thousands of people that these agencies have identified as threats are not–the proof is in the pudding, we have many years history now of this excessive surveillance, and none of these targets are going to jail. There is a reason for that: They aren't doing anything. Thank God for career-minded prosecutors, who are the only check we have right now on the excesses of our spy agencies.

    To this mix we want to add an even sketchier method of determining what somebody is thinking?

    November 13, 2011 at 9:19 am |
  5. MannyHM

    Of course this technology can be abused or misused. People will start believing that it's infallible and that's when problem starts.
    I see this more like subjecting a convicted felon to this test to find out where he buried the body. Show a map to this suspect and point to different areas. The place that would 'light up' on the scan will be the focus of the search. Before a person is given release, a scan might be able to scan and screen for any residual violent potential and hidden hate. Yes, somebody like Bernie Madoff should be included here before you throw away your life savings.

    November 13, 2011 at 9:18 am |
  6. Arran Webb

    Should CNN make a fallacious suggestion that the government can read minds and turn it into a news story? CNN – making up the news daily! CNN has already dropped the Penn. State pedophilia scandal – hoping to divert the attention to a military version of a similar event – CNN you have no moral duty to the people of America – but at least try to make news propaganda a little believable – you have mastered entertainment.

    November 13, 2011 at 9:17 am |
  7. sunny

    what is really goin on they cant find cure for anthing but they find something to read our mind or this a joke

    November 13, 2011 at 9:17 am |
  8. Jason

    Wow, way to totally misstate our research and intentions. We're nowhere CLOSE to discerning actual thought. And due to bran variations, one man's Werneke's is another man's Brocha's, so you can tell.

    Besides, who cares about the Government? I would be more concerned about women seeing what was going on in my head . . .

    November 13, 2011 at 9:16 am |
    • Wardog

      I'm not too worried, I doubt anyone in government can read that fast.

      November 13, 2011 at 9:23 am |
  9. BHS

    Go for it. Fascinating and useful. Looking forward to a human and computer interface. Maybe one day we'll be able to defrag and ad programs to our brain with a simple download. Plug my ipod right into my melon. I'm in.

    November 13, 2011 at 9:14 am |
  10. 99%

    Mr. Paul Root Wolpe, I was wondering if you can do our nation a service? Seeing you have access to write a story that millions might read. Could you please not state “THE government”? Because it seems many Americans have lost ideology that it’s “OUR government”! And the true question of your story should be, should we the people allow OUR government to read peoples minds?

    If you want to write a story about something more important than this you should research how OUR nation’s government lost its way from the people. And how OUR government has been neglected by the people and left in the hands of politicians. And then you can do a follow up on how the industry of the political parties is more of a threat to this nation’s sovereignty than some we are bombing in the Middle East.

    Thank you,

    1 of the 99%

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

      99, you are a bit late. Govt of, by, and for the people was destroyed by Lincoln.

      November 13, 2011 at 9:20 am |
    • Adam

      Sure, SciGuy - if you don't count women and people of African descent as people.

      November 13, 2011 at 9:42 am |
  11. Adam

    This article grossly exaggerates the state of neuroscience today and shows a gross ignorance of American law.
    Trying to reach a popular audience is not an excuse for gross intellectual laziness of this sort.

    November 13, 2011 at 9:12 am |
  12. t


    November 13, 2011 at 9:08 am |
  13. GavinMacDonnell

    The issue barely cuts out a point that could have been made a generation ago. Mind reading requires a very careful consideration when addressing non manifested idiosyncratic dialogue; and this is dialogue that the brain makes for constant assessment of reality. My thoughts do not need to be known by a psychiatrist or much less a commoner or even a trusted friend.. Nonetheless,, its been possible to trace thoughts for at least 38 years; so the issues may be a generation too late for some people.

    November 13, 2011 at 9:08 am |
  14. Stanley

    No doubt a line of experimentation will follow scientific mind-reading with scientific blocking-of mind-reading, and the result will be a scientific arms race. At some point in the future our descendants will no longer be recognizable as "humans" to those of us living in the early years of the twenty-first century.

    November 13, 2011 at 9:08 am |
  15. Ridiculous

    Nope, the age of mind reading is NOT upon us and NEVER WILL BE. You can take THAT to the bank!!!!!

    November 13, 2011 at 9:06 am |
    • SciGuy

      ...and we'll never make it to the moon, right?

      November 13, 2011 at 9:28 am |
  16. oldwoodboats

    No! The government should not be allow to read my mind. That capability should be reserved for gizmo sales forces, real estate promoters, movie moguls, and mortgage bankers,

    November 13, 2011 at 9:06 am |
  17. Jo

    I'll start worrying when they can read the minds of mice. But then again, I change the ones that runs the wheel in my mind too often for them to pin them down. Seriously, we knew this was coming, I just didn't think this soon. They have no business with it. It's like that Tom Cruise movie, Minority Report, there's so much that will go wrong.

    November 13, 2011 at 9:05 am |
  18. PaulNYC

    And ethicists think that their objections or even laws restricting the use of this technology will stop intelligence agencies from utilizing it en masse? What sort of naive kind of thinking is this? All of the agencies with initials (and some we know nothing about) don't give a damn about laws if they are in the way of them doing as they please. There needs to be a fundamental shift in thinking in this country if these agencies are ever going to be brought under control and I don't see that happening for one minute.

    November 13, 2011 at 9:02 am |
  19. reddog

    If you could read George W. Bush's mind it wouldn't take but a minute.

    November 13, 2011 at 9:01 am |
  20. JB

    They may as well read minds, they already try hard enough to manipulate our minds.

    November 13, 2011 at 9:01 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.