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. Jeannot

    Politicians are history.

    November 13, 2011 at 9:48 am |
    • NoTarzan

      Nope! Only their integrity.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:12 am |
  2. greg

    Rick Perry at least has nothing to worry about.

    November 13, 2011 at 9:48 am |
  3. BOB (burnt out bad)

    By reading some of the comments here, there seems to be a lot mindless people.

    November 13, 2011 at 9:44 am |
    • Let's read the goernment's mind

      Let's read the goernment's mind. (what if there's nothing there?)

      November 13, 2011 at 9:50 am |
    • Born out of Bad (BOOB)

      You're not one of them right? But I doubt it.

      November 13, 2011 at 9:54 am |
  4. Cassandra Chu

    Let's hook one up to Israel's Netanyahoo and see how many times he lies in an hour...

    November 13, 2011 at 9:44 am |
    • awdam

      Read my mind mf!!

      November 13, 2011 at 11:10 am |
  5. Bruning von Stauffen

    Well, there is one benefit I coiuld see right away. If a person's mind could be probed in court and reveal the truth then we wouldn't need lawyers anymore. Ah, a world without lawyers....now that would be almost worth the price of mind-scanning in itself.

    November 13, 2011 at 9:43 am |
  6. sybaris

    I want one!

    Every man should be given one when he marries!

    November 13, 2011 at 9:42 am |
  7. Tim

    The point of the fifth amendent was to keep people from being tortured into confessions. I really don't think pleading the fifth will be a defense against brain scans.

    I think brain scans should be used against those suspected of criminal actvity only if they yield binary answers similar to what a lie detector does. I think also the person should be allowed to opt out of a brain scan (a definite sign of guilt of course).

    Whether or not this fact is admissible in court, of course, is an interesting question. My thoughts are if we can get the accuracy up to a good 99%, than yeah, sure it should be admissible in court.

    Why not? Yes/No questions could be constrained to be about the crime only (no fishing expeditions) and would save soooo much tax payer money and time. Plus it make it near impossible to commit a crime that you could later be interviewed over.

    I see zero downside – IF the accuracy is high and the questions are legally constrained to be specific, which is a no brainer.

    November 13, 2011 at 9:42 am |
    • Brian

      Nice try justifying loosing more of our rights, but the fifth amendment clearly says

      "nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself"

      Compulsion is not just physical. If I have the right to remain silent (and I do) then by extension I have a right to keep my thoughts to myself also. The day a judge says that isn't the case, is the day this country comes crashing down.

      November 13, 2011 at 9:51 am |
  8. olepi

    I would be more afraid of the marketers getting access to my thoughts, than the government.

    It is a mistake to think that your thoughts are your own anyway. They are just the products of your conditioning and current stimulus.

    November 13, 2011 at 9:38 am |
    • Jeannot

      Okay now, who wrote this post then?

      November 13, 2011 at 9:47 am |
  9. oneSTARman

    IMAGINE a World where Everyone could not only READ Everyone's mind but FEEL Everyone's Feelings. A world where LYING was IMPOSSIBLE and NOBODY would STRIKE Anyone Else because of the PAIN it Caused to Themselves. Sounds Like HEAVEN.

    November 13, 2011 at 9:36 am |
    • Jeannot

      Would that include seeing through everyone's clothes?

      November 13, 2011 at 9:47 am |
    • Brian

      Sorry but I can't help thinking of some of the thin walled apartments I've lived in with incredibly active neighbors. I wouldn't have gotten much sleep but I would have saved a fortune on hot water bills from all the cold showers.

      November 13, 2011 at 9:53 am |
  10. Jeannot

    When that happens, I'm moving out of this sick country. Go ahead, make my day.

    November 13, 2011 at 9:34 am |
    • NoTarzan

      Do it ASAP. Nobody would miss you.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:05 am |
  11. nancy

    The government is more evil than we all care to acknowledge. Ignorance is bliss. We have to open our eyes and see what it is they're actually doing. Scary stuff, people. I'd suggest moving to an island somewhere to get away from the deterioration of America in general. We no longer have rights....we have privileges. Privileges that are quickly deteriorating...

    November 13, 2011 at 9:33 am |
  12. Mike

    Yawn. This reminds me of the ethical debate about cloning, which was so heated when the cloned the sheep, and now is (like everything) on the back burner because science has stalled.

    WHEN my mind can be read accurately, THEN let's debate whether we should be allowed to have the government or others involved.

    November 13, 2011 at 9:31 am |
    • Travis Porter

      Definitely. I don't see this happening any time soon. Right now, scientists are only trying to understand the brain to provide better care, and I really don't think it's all about government takeover. They are in the very, very, early stages of brain mapping. You currently need to use a complex machine (FMRI) to see the active parts of the brain. It's not as if someone can shoot a ray gun at you and instantly read your thoughts. Although, if that gun existed, I'd want cnn.com to have one so they could start writing better articles. In the scientific community, this article would be referred to as a "Slippery Slope" argument and is one of the common fallacies used in reasoning. If we allow X to occur, things will spin out of control and far worse events will follow. The truth is that there are many more positive things that could come out of mapping the brain.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:03 am |
  13. aswoc

    You would have thought...no pun intended, that we would have learned by now, if they(governments) know how to do it.....they will.

    November 13, 2011 at 9:29 am |
  14. thedish

    Obama wants mind control.

    November 13, 2011 at 9:29 am |
    • MainCourse

      Definitely it will not work on Sarah Plain.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:08 am |
    • Jason

      Ahhh yes....The Boogy Black Man in the White House.... You're an !diot....

      November 13, 2011 at 10:12 am |
    • Charge Nurse Betty

      And since Michelle Bachmann has no brain, it will show an empty brain case.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:26 am |
  15. mario

    Stealing dreams?

    November 13, 2011 at 9:28 am |
    • Super

      It's for free, why steal it then?

      November 13, 2011 at 10:10 am |
  16. RV1982

    The article is not clear as to whether a brain imaging model of a single person's "thoughts" is good for only that individual, or if a single model is sufficient for an entire population. I suspect the technology is something like voice recognition...you have to "train" or develop the model to obtain imaging data of the individual's mind you want to read in order to obtain accuracy and precision in output. The author seems to be inferring that the research would lead to what is akin to developing some sort of ESP machine capable of reading anyone's mind, regardless of one's origins or language. I'm sure there is a "hate" or "rage" area of the brain that could generically be detected among all individuals, but I am doubting any ability to detect what kind of hand the opposition is holding in a poker game. But then again, even the best poker players are capable or "reading" the minds of their opponents.

    November 13, 2011 at 9:27 am |
    • Giles

      Even with lie detectors now you need to establish a base-line, i.e., "is your name John Smith"? Probably some version of base-line (or whatever) could be established once the technology gets there.

      November 13, 2011 at 10:07 am |
  17. LL72

    I'm not a conspiracy theorist, nor am I paranoid that the government actually has the manpower or interest to keep files on what type of breakfast cereal I enjoy in the morning (It's Golden Grahams, but don't let "the man" know!!). However, to truly ensure that the government does not overstep its bounds, we have to focus on the here and now...not on potential sci fi threats that aren't fully realized. Perspective, please?? Yes, it's not enough to be paranoid over the technology the government *does* have. Now we must demonize them further for things it doesn't even have the power to do yet. In his next issue, Dr. Wolpe will be discussing the ethics of the US military maintaining naked slave women on Mars Colony 616.

    November 13, 2011 at 9:27 am |
  18. Blah

    Why does education and knowledge scare the religious so much?

    November 13, 2011 at 9:26 am |
    • SciGuy

      Why do blah have trouble with v-s agreement?

      November 13, 2011 at 9:32 am |
    • LL72

      It's really narcissists...the folks who think that even with our economic decline, lack of manpower, and several military conflicts going on that Uncle Sam somehow REALLY wants to know and keep records of whether you have naughty thoughts when you see pictures of Lindsay Lohan. Forget about keeping our men and women safe overseas, I am going to specifically target Dr. Wolpe's thoughts to see whether or not he's a naughty boy!

      November 13, 2011 at 9:32 am |
    • sybaris

      genitalia scares them too

      November 13, 2011 at 9:45 am |
  19. America

    The government reading people mind is OK. After the Officials get all the bug out of reading people mind.. We would all live in crime free world. The future generation is going to have fun...

    November 13, 2011 at 9:26 am |
    • nancy

      please tell me your being ironical!

      November 13, 2011 at 9:30 am |


    November 13, 2011 at 9:24 am |
    • SciGuy

      Why screaming?

      November 13, 2011 at 9:36 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.