Thursday, October 22, 2009

Forbes - Is My Mind Mine?

The new arts of neuroimaging may change some laws and rights around personal freedom, but how and what ways?

Is My Mind Mine?

Paul Root Wolpe, 10.09.09, 12:30 PM EDT

How neuroimaging will affect personal freedom.


We all lead an inner life. Our thoughts flow through our heads, some fleeting, some lingering. We think about an upcoming celebration or we remember a moment from years past. We plan, speculate, love, fear, obsess, reason and interpret our lives in an ongoing inner dialogue that characterizes who we are as individuals. The inner dialogue, which exists wholly in our heads, is, in some sense, our single most private possession.

The private nature of the inner workings of our minds is our one impenetrable refuge. No one can see what I am thinking or feel what I am feeling. We take it for granted that the contents of our thoughts are ours alone, that they are safely hidden away in the sanctum of our mind.

At least until now. Neuroscience has, for the first time, demonstrated that there may be ways to directly access human thought--even, perhaps, without the thinker's consent. While the research is still preliminary, the science is advancing at an astonishing rate. While many obstacles need to be overcome and the technology is not yet practicable, the implications for our current state of knowledge are profound.

Using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), scientists can infer all kinds of information by looking at brain activity while subjects perform designated tasks. Early research showed a scan could reveal the orientation of stripes a subject looked at (e.g., horizontal, vertical, diagonal), or whether subjects had been looking at specific objects such as faces, cats, man-made objects, or at nonsense pictures. As the research advanced, scientists began to correlate traits and abilities such as extroversion and introversion, racist ideology and navigational ability with specific activation patterns in the brain.

If research was limited to those kinds of studies, concern might be premature. But more recent studies seem to have taken significant steps toward what most would consider mind-reading. A study in Berlin gave subjects two numbers, and told them to decide privately whether or not they were going to add or subtract them, and then to reveal it after a brief interval. Researchers imaging the brains of the subjects during the interval found that they could predict whether the subject had decided to add or subtract. In other words, they could predict the subjects' intention. A study at Carnegie Mellon showed that researchers could predict the specific pattern of brain activation in a subject when they thought of a specific word, effectively identifying through a brain scan what word the individual was thinking of, even if they had never scanned that word in that individual's brain before. The study crossed undeniably into mind-reading: identifying a specific word in a subject's mind.

As you can imagine, courts, security agencies and the military would love to get their hands on this technology. And the march of neuroscience does not end with "mind-reading." For example, a number of researchers have been working on brain imaging for lie detection, and two companies (Cephos and No Lie MRI) are situating themselves to offer brain imaging lie detection to the general public. Studies of learning disabilities have identified specific areas of the brain used in reading, which suggests that we may be able to flash words in various languages in front of a subject and tell whether or not they can read a particular language and even, perhaps, understand it. Imagine the usefulness of that technology in identifying insurgents.

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