What if a stranger could see into your mind?

“A penny for your thoughts,” my mother used to say when I was brooding. As I got on into my teen years, she was less and less likely to get her money’s worth, and–even corrected for inflation and then some–I would probably have gotten even less out of my own kids. 

But suppose parents didn’t have to offer even a penny’s worth of bribes? Suppose they could switch on some new technological marvel and know their kids’ thoughts?

Or, say you’re an attractive young woman being interviewed by a male partner in a law firm. Suppose you could surreptitiously scan his brain during the conversation and get the readout of his thoughts on your cell phone minutes later?

Or, you’re a young man on the make in a crowded bar; don’t you want to know which of the three or four women you’re eyeing is most likely to take you home?

These science-fiction scenarios have just come a bit closer with a new study from the University of California at Berkeley. Using MRI—magnetic resonance imaging—a group spanning programs in psychology, neuroscience, and physics has gotten the most impressive results so far in the new science of mind-reading.

That’s right—science. One branch of brain imaging now deals with figuring out what people are looking at by scanning their brains. And this neurological guessing game is only a prelude; ultimately, imagers will be looking not just at brain activity tied to visual patterns but at thoughts, motives, and feelings.

Here’s what they did. First, two human subjects were each shown 1,750 natural images, while the visual area of their cerebral cortex was scanned. Wave forms were plotted to reflect activity at the level of small mapping units called voxels. Then the researchers selected 120 ofthe pictures for their guessing game. This time only the subjects knew what they were looking at, while the scientists looked only at the record of what went on in the brain.

For one subject, they guessed right on 110 out of the 120 pictures. I would call this astounding. For the second subject they were right for 86 of the pictures. That is, their grades on the two subjects were 92 and 76 percent. If they were just guessing wildly, they should have gotten scores of less than one percent, by chance.

This is the kind of finding you don’t need statistics for. True, the brain-scan data were averaged over 13 repeats of each picture for each subject; but even if they made their guess on the basis of one viewing, they still got grades of 51 and 32 percent for those two subjects—many times what you would get just by chance. And these results were achieved at what is still a very early stage in the history of brain-scanning technology. There is no telling what will be possible when resolution gets really good.

Now, true enough, these subjects had to put their heads inside a humongous donut-shaped magnet while they were doing all this, which doesn’t lend itself to convenient use in your local bar. And it cost a heck of a lot more than a penny to read their thoughts this way—more like what my mom would have called “a pretty penny.”

But the proof of principle is here and now, and the advance of technology means that we may all be subjects of brain-reading in the future.

The Berkeley researchers are fine with this, in fact they are “optimistic.” A brain decoder, they say, “would have great scientific and practical use.” We could use it “to study covert mental processes,” for instance, or to access “purely mental phenomena such as dreams and imagery.” Imagine the lie detector test you’d have for a suspected terrorist—or for that matter a prospective husband. At the extreme looms an Orwellian world in which “Big Brother”—a totalitarian government—could read the thoughts of any citizen at will.

I recently asked a group of students in a class about the brain what they thought the new field of neuroethics might be. They mentioned cases like Terry Schiavo’s, where brain science focused on whether this tragically injured woman had enough mental activity to justify keeping her on a feeding tube. Another example was the recent use of expert testimony on adolescent brain development to argue that impulse control is so weak in teenagers’ brains that the death penalty should never be applied to them. And then of course there was the not-so-simple question of figuring out whether or not someone has died.

But the thing they omitted, the thing I had to ask them about specifically, was the ethics of reading other people’s minds. I wondered aloud, “How many of you would be very worried if someone could read your thoughts?” My own hand went up first.

Millions of years of evolution have made it very hard for others to read our minds, because survival and reproduction depended on our being able to keep certain thoughts to ourselves. My mother (whose birthday would have been today) brought me up well, but my thoughts, like yours, are often selfish; I want to be judged by my actions, but I want to plan them in private. 

I’m all for advancing science, and this research should go on. But I hope some very hard thinking—by ethicists as well as scientists—goes into decisions about what to use this sort of technology for, and how to control it once it’s widely available.



  1. Adam Konner says:

    That is way cool. I gotta say, I’m not that scared. I think the benefits of being able to communicate thoughts and feelings without language are huge, and Big Brother is far far away. I doubt it will ever be possible to read another person’s thoughts without their active participation, let alone without their knowledge. And if that technology ever does come around, I’m sure the technology to block or scramble the signal will be very close behind. As a method of getting the truth from prisoners, it may be a less voluntary situation. But considering the alternative — torture — I pray the guards at Guantanamo Bay are the first to get access to this technology when it comes.

  2. Melvin Konner says:

    I think this is sensible and like you I don’t tend to get hysterical about this stuff for exactly the reason you point out–that defensive tech is never far behind invasive tech. As for Guantanamo, better than torture for sure, but what happens if the local police start using it on people arrested at an anti-globalization demonstration? Of if the Chinese use it on Tibetans to find out if they like the Dalai Lama? Technology is a lot less of a threat in a free society.

  3. Hello Dr. Konner,

    My Name is Carla Williams. I hope this e-mail gets to you because my e-mail is most of the times looked at from either a hacker, stalker, or (I’ve been told the authorities). First of all, I would like to tell you that I am a christian and I totally disagree with this brain reading thing. God would not want it at all. God gives us a choice and this is America land of the free and we all should be given a choice as long as we’re not hurting anybody and we’re not doing anything illegal, which I’m not. Anyways, I just said that just to tell you a little bit about my situation and if this e-mail gets to you I will know by your response. If not then God bless you. I will just say I have been told I am “plugged up” . I will just tell you that what that means is it’s a device (like a microphone) is put to my head far away to detect what I’m thinking along with putting information in my brain to try to tell me how to think. I have been reading (and I’m still researching) articles to educate myself on this so I can tell someone to stop these people from doing this to me. I have not broken the law that I know of and I will tell you right now I have been to the hospital, but I also carry a doctors note saying I’m ok. So if any of this is about that then I am being harrassed. I also think that criminals (rather they are in law enforcement or not) are trying to take my money that I work hard for because of the information that I feel is taking from me when I think of it and/or plan something and miss treated at my job (and no I’m not quiting because I have a right to support myself. I have tried other jobs and the same thing happens and it’s not me I have proof on tape that I gave to the police). How do you fight a nassisitic phsycopathic that is trying to play some pimp/gang games on you that you don’t want to be and not even a part of? I also have stranger that I don’t even know tell me things that are about my personal business (some of them are,lies too)and I don’t even know them at all. The people call me names, cuss me out, and alot of times say personal things out loud that are about me that only I would know. Maybe to another person or directly to me. I believe and have proof my phone was hacked into, e-mail, and a monitor put on my t.v. to talk to me computerize via satilite and DVS or whatever you call that thing that every household had to get last year to be able to watch just regular t.v. I just want to say a few or more things before I go. I have had these people come between my relationships with friends and relatives. I feel I should be able to date who I want and not feel put down and feel less than every woman in this world. What I would like to know is what I can do about this. I contacted the police up until the Chief to internal affairs, human rights, moved out of town, changed phones and phone numbers, told the hospital, told my relative and friends, and now I have a attorney I’m going to talk to soon and I might take it to court. If that don’t work I just will probably leave the country because I feel nobody should have to live like this. You can look at the the website 1224489/…if you need more proof. Don’t forget to read the part when they say they use this mostly in hospitals. I was told to go when I didn’t need to (to the hospital). Thank you for listen.
    God Bless you! Carla Williams

    • Mel Konner says:

      Dear Carla,

      It sounds as if you have suffered a lot. I am sorry to hear that. I think it is very unlikely that anyone will try to read your brain against your will, and I hope that life will go better for you in the future. Bless you too.

      Mel Konner

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