Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Changing the Way We Think

by David Michaels

The following post is part of a special series emerging from Contemporary Issues in Neuroethics, a graduate-level course out of Emory University’s Center for Ethics. David is a student at Emory University working on his Master's degree in Bioethics. After completing his graduate studies he will be attending medical school in Texas.  

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have the ability to read minds? If you're like me, you've daydreamed about possessing this superpower. It's easy to imagine all of the fascinating ways you could exploit this gift to your liking. But after a while this myopic perspective is turned on its head when we imagine our own thoughts being read.  Quickly, almost instantaneously, we conclude with absolute certainty, "Nope, absolutely not - the power to read minds is a bad idea..." Some thoughts are probably best left alone in the mysterious impenetrable fortress of privacy--our mind.

However, recent breakthroughs in neuroscience may challenge the notion that our mind is impervious to infiltration. Did you know that we may have the ability in the near future to record our dreams so that we can watch them later? Scientists have been working on developing technology that translates brain activity (measured in an fMRI machine) to visible images, allowing us to "see" our thoughts. Although this technology currently only utilizes real-time brain activity and cannot produce images from stored thoughts (i.e. memories), it nevertheless introduces the possibility that people will be able to "see" our thoughts - and maybe "read" them too - in the future.

This is just one of many controversies over emerging 'neurotechnological lie detection' Sarah Stoller and Dr. Paul Root Wolpe discuss in a 2007 paper. They explore the question of whether or not the government has the right to invade our minds in order to obtain evidence that can be used in a court of law. Neuroscience has, for the first time in history, allowed researchers to bypass the peripheral nervous system and gather data directly from the brain (Wolpe et al. 2005). Although Stoller and Wolpe focus on the legality of these technologies and whether or not they violate our 5th amendment right, I want to explore whether adopting technologies that unveil the privacy of the mind will change the way we think and the way that we live.

Let's start at the beginning. Why do we think of our mental "mind space" (i.e., thoughts and memories) differently from our physical property? One reason we feel differently about our thoughts is that they reside in the only place in the universe that is genuinely secure. Our mind is a loyal confidant, a safe haven for our thoughts, feelings and memories and no one, without our permission, is allowed access. This is a big deal since most of us dislike (or hate) the idea of a friend or family member, certainly a stranger, having unrestricted access to our smart-phones or laptop computers and reading just a tiny fraction of our thoughts - imagine every thought being made public.

This certainty of privacy and safety affects the way we think and what we think about. It gives us the ability to entertain ideas regardless of their legality, deviance from the norm or seemingly foolish nature. It allows us to simulate immature scenarios in our head or respond to people with exceedingly clever (if I do say so myself) smart-aleck quips without suffering the consequences. It grants us the precious opportunity to "think before we speak" so that we may predict how others will react to our comments. It fosters creativity and fends off boredom.

What happens if these thoughts are no longer private? What happens when our memories become analogous to a file cabinet - available for retrieval and viewing by anyone who knows where to look? How will this affect the dynamic of our thoughts and ultimately our lives? Would your computer and smart-phone habits change if you knew lots of people had unrestricted access to them? For most people, I think the obvious answer is yes. Living in a society with the capability to breach our mental privacy would change everything. There are two likely outcomes of living in such a world.

from Gajitz

On one hand, a world with no mental privacy would create a society of people hypersensitive to their surroundings. Not only would we be afraid to do "bad" things, but we would be afraid to merely think them. We would hesitate before looking at shameful pictures or controversial videos. We would become obsessed with placing ourselves in positions that do not evoke illicit or shameful thoughts. It would be as if our mind was placed in an interrogation room, its every move and whisper recorded and archived. Fear would dominate our lives.

On the other hand, the complete opposite may occur. A world devoid of privacy may lead to a hyper-tolerant society where feelings of embarrassment and shame are rarities. We would become so accustomed to other people's way of thinking that terms like "politically correct" would be meaningless. Our hyper-tolerance would result from increased exposure and subsequent understanding of how other people live their lives. A similar parallel can be seen with the technological boom of the last half-century. The internet has revolutionized the way humans communicate, exposing individuals to a great variety of people and their cultures fostering cultural tolerance ultimately promoting harmony and acceptance within society.​

Do we really want to jeopardize the final frontier of human privacy by invading the mind? Are we prepared to suffer the consequences? Will it change the way we think?


Sarah E. Stoller & Paul R. Wolpe, Emerging Neurotechnologies for Lie Detection and the Fifth Amendment, 33 Am. J. Bioethics, 33 (2007), 359-375.

Paul R. Wolpe et al., Emerging Neurotechnologies for Lie-Detection: Promises and Perils, 5 AM. J. Bioethics 39, 39 (2005)

Want to cite this post?

Michaels, D. (2015). Changing the Way We Think. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2015/06/changing-way-we-think.html

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