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Brain reading and the right to privacy

With advances in neuroimaging the ability to decode mental states in humans by recording brain activity has become a reality. In a review for Nature Neuroscience that is now six years old, John-Dylan Haynes and Geraint Rees detail how fMRI can be used to accurately predict visual perception. They explain that with advanced statistical pattern recognition, not only can the perception of broadly different visual inputs be differentiated, such as faces versus landscapes, but even the perception of subtly distinct objects, such shoes versus a chair, can be recognized. Further, fine details can also be distinguished, including image orientation, direction of motion, and perceived color. Indeed, the orientation of masked images can even be discriminated by activity in the primary visual cortex despite the subject being unable to consciously distinguish the orientation of the image.

Decoding unconscious processing (from Haynes and Rees, 2006)

While the power of fMRI and other imaging techniques to extract information from the brain without the consent of the subject may not yet warrant serious concerns about the subject’s privacy, young neuroscientists face the distinct possibility that during their careers neuroimaging techniques will advance to the point that these ‘non-invasive’ techniques will have the power to invade the subject’s privacy in ways the subject does not want and may not understand. Therefore, young neuroscientists have a responsibility to be prepared to answer the ethical questions that could plausibly arise as a result of their work in the not too distant future.

Major Ethical Questions

The first topic that comes to mind is the question of the use of fMRI for lie detection. This is a popular idea that has even made its way onto Mythbusters with the show concluding that it was plausible to fool the test in its current state. This topic has also appeared previously on The Neuroethics Blog with Dr. Julie Seaman discussing whether fMRI, possibly in conjunction with the polygraph test, could eventually be used to help a jury determine the credibility of a witness. Dr. Seaman points out that thus far courts have been reluctant to allow lie detection tests despite evidence of humans being very poor at determining truth from lies. Use of lie detection may well be desirable to aid an imperfect human system, but several questions arise: What level of sensitivity would need to be achieved before a test should be considered accurate enough for the court room? What happens if a test shows a witness is lying? Can that witness then be tried? Who administers the test? If possible, should the test be fully automated?

While lie detection may be the most dramatic topic, other uses of neuroimaging raise similarly important questions: Should fMRI be used to potentially reveal cognitive functions in fully paralyzed patients? Could prospective employees be asked to submit brain scans as part of job applications? How about politicians running for office? What responsibility do neuroscientists have to filter this information?

The Role of Neuroscientists

Neuroscientists will need to be cautious in reporting results that could potentially lead to abuse related to brain scanning. While scientists may have limited control over the rules established to govern any rights to mental privacy, they are likely to be called upon for expertise in interpreting potentially misleading results. As neuroscience findings become widely publicized certain topics, such as the ones discussed above, may become controversial and neuroscientists have a responsibility to learn from mistakes of the past that have led to public misinterpretation of important scientific findings such as evolution and climate change. Few realms of science have as great a potential to produce as controversial findings in the near future as neuroscience and thus neuroscientists need to discuss ethical implications before they arise and be prepared to responsibly handle the extraordinary powers they may be granted; including the power they may be well be granted to read minds by imaging brains.

–Eric Maltbie

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Maltbie, E. (2012). Brain reading and the right to privacy. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on
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