Neuroethics: mind reading

by Tieme on September 19, 2013 - 10:23pm

What is your favorite superpower? Superhuman strength? What about mind reading? The latter is my personal favorite, and I wonder why. Maybe because it seems so impossible and out of reach. Well, recent studies by MIT neuroscientists suggest that science fiction might one day become reality. Indeed, an article from the journal of science Nature, “US brain project puts focus on ethics”, depicts the experiment in which researchers implanted false memories into mice’s brains. This is still a long way from telepathy, yet it was alarming enough to stir many ethical concerns. Notably, if mind reading becomes possible, should it be used on human individuals?

The previous question is quite broad, and encompasses many more specific issues. In fact, it is the main concern of a whole field of ethics called neuroethics. Nevertheless, I think that it is appropriate to illustrate the debate with two opposing concepts of nature.

When people are confronted with radically new scientific ideas, many tend to be hesitant or reluctant to accept them. Especially regarding what concerns the brain or the mind, because neuroscience “[deals] with things affecting thought, emotion, behaviour – what people hold valuable as the essence of the self” (James Giordano, see article link below). This reaction is often governed by the concept of nature as the non-artificial. From this perspective, science and technology is unnatural and therefore wrong. It is against nature to “play” in the heads of others; what if we get to a point where we can control minds, they ask. I admit that the latter is a scary prospect, but I prefer considering the issue from the evolutionary nature perspective. From this view, our neuroscientific technology is not bad and it is part of nature as much as humans are. It will help us evolve as a species by allowing new disease treatments, for instance, or by helping fight crime (useless polygraphs replaced with true lie detectors). As we went from handwritten letters to emails, we may one day, in our evolution process, go from oral communication to brain-to-brain conversations.  

Now consider this more specific question derived from the ethical issue. Should authorities be allowed to force suspected terrorists to be brained scanned?


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Being the little sister of a neuroscientist, I hear about the new discoveries made in this field all the time. We often debate about neuroscience issues at the supper table. This is why the topic of your article caught my attention right away. I had already heard about implanting false ideas in the mind of a mouse and I thought it was fascinating.

First, to answer your question, I do think that if in the future we are able to do some brain scanning, it should be used on criminals and on terrorists. In our legal system, the laws are made in order for the society to function and when someone breaks the law, he is forced to go to court. The purpose of this process is to discover the truth and therefore, to punish those who deserve to be punished. By doing so, justice is served and we can live in a more peaceful society. This is why if doing some brain scanning can facilitate this process, it should be done.

However, I don’t think that mind reading should be done on all human beings. Even though I agree with you by saying that neuroscience is a very important science that helps us understand human behavior and that could help us evolve as species, I think it should have some limits. If people could all read their minds, it would create a lot of conflict because depending on how people are raised and on their cultural background, they have different opinions and therefore, different thoughts that go through their minds. This is why I think that everybody should have the right to decide if they want to share certain information and opinion with others, knowing that it could be a source of conflict.

To conclude, I don’t disagree with all sorts of mind reading. As explained in the article below, mind reading could also be used to improve our lifestyle. In this case, since the purpose of brain scanning is not to extract information or to implant ideas, but more to understand what is happening in order to adapt our technology. I think it should be done and could be very helpful to our society.

As you say, the prospect of mind reading is a very interesting idea and is something we have all dreamed about at least once in our lives. The potential information we could gather about the brain would help us understand a lot of human behaviour and psychological processes. But this comes with a hic: ethical repercussions.

To answer your question about suspected terrorists, I believe such drastic means of psychological analysis may only be used with the consent of the suspect. I think that because our own mind is the final barrier to our privacy, we simply cannot force someone to open it for us. However, as you stated, mind-reading can serve the same purposes as polygraphs, meaning a potential suspect may accept to be subject to mind-reading to prove his innocence.

Moreover, considering the first experiment on mice involves implanting false memories, we can believe memory creation will be a key component of mind-reading. What will happen when any form of authority will want to prove someone is guilty for reasons like appeasing the population or simply destroying the reputation of a political adversary? They will make the person think they perpetrated the crime they are accused of. Is there better proof than actual confessions coming from a guilt-driven suspect? Mind-reading does contain many advantages, as I stated earlier. It would allow much better comprehension of the human mind, and, as long as the communication between two mind-reading machines would be secure, allow for quick and efficient communication. Maybe we won’t even need languages anymore! This is why I believe we should accept mind-reading on humans, as long as it is secure, not forced, and does not involve implantation of thoughts or new elements in one’s mind.
I understand the point of view you state where mind-reading is unnatural. But I ask: what differences are there between reading thoughts that have been chosen and deliberately sent via a mind-reading machine, and when someone explains what they think to another person? In both cases, the information is communicated to another person, in the latter case however, the information is subject to misinterpretation and inefficient. Mind-reading simply facilitates the process. Additionally, we are all able to repress certain undesired memories so we forget them and to keep reminding ourselves of other happy memories that we want to keep. Being able to deliberately choose certain memories we want to erase and others we want to keep through a mind-reading technology would simply render a process deemed “natural” easier.
On this final point, I suggest reading the following article that describes current researches that may enable us to communicate with people in a coma, or any other non-responsive status.

Mind reading is unique among the well-known superpowers, in that it explores a very private area of human interaction that, up to this day, we can only imagine exploring. While I am well versed in the subject of mind reading, as it is present in fantasy and sci-fi, I did not know that there was a field of ethics dedicated to studying this topic. The fact that it is being studied, in reality, makes in feel shockingly real to me.

In answer to your question, I believe that mind reading could be put to use as a safety measure against terrorism. Of course, it wouldn't be the only safety measure. Just as we have full-body scanners in airports today, people could decide to opt out and be subjected to a good old-fashioned frisking. The efficiency of mind reading as a security tool would depend a lot on whether people could mask their thoughts by singing the latest catchy pop song in their head, but that's not exactly an ethical concern so let's get back on track. I think mind reading could be the default safety tool in airports, with civilians having the choice of not going through it if they feel it violates their privacy.

While progressing to mind-to-mind conversations would be great, since it would decrease miscommunications and potentially remove the language barrier, it would have to be done, as Comeau says in his comment, in a way that allows people to choose what to send to the recipient, so as not to violate people's privacy of thought. When most people think of mind reading, they think of being able to read other people's thoughts, whether those other people want to reveal those thoughts or not. Jim Carrey's character in Liar Liar comes to mind as an example of the catastrophic effects of people knowing other's true thoughts. In the movie, he is unable to lie, causing him to spurt out his opinion in a variety of hilariously unfortunate situations. Our society is built on little white lies and taking that away by having people be able to read each other's minds would destroy the everyday facade of civil interaction, which is why it would be necessary for "mind messages" to be contain only information that the sender wants it to contain.

For more reading on mind reading: