Bioethics and cognitive liberty

Wired's Clive Thompson's latest column probes the new bioethical conundra of "cognitive liberty" -- the freedom not to have our brains scanned. I first encountered the phrase in relation to mind-altering drugs, where it's also a good fit -- what freedom could be more fundamental than the freedom to choose your state of mind?
We think of our brains as the ultimate private sanctuary, a zone where other people can't intrude without our knowledge or permission. But its boundaries are gradually eroding. Hypersonic sound is just a portent of what's coming, one of a host of emerging technologies aimed at tapping into our heads. These tools raise a fascinating, and queasy, new ethical question: Do we have a right to "mental privacy"?

"We're going to be facing this question more and more, and nobody is really ready for it," says Paul Root Wolpe, a bioethicist and board member of the nonprofit Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics. "If the skull is not an absolute domain of privacy, there are no privacy domains left." He argues that the big personal liberty issues of the 21st century will all be in our heads – the "civil rights of the mind," he calls it.

It's true that most of this technology is still gestational. But the early experiments are compelling: Some researchers say that fMRI brain scans can detect surprisingly specific mental acts – like whether you're entertaining racist thoughts, doing arithmetic, reading, or recognizing something. Entrepreneurs are already pushing dubious forms of the tech into the marketplace: You can now hire a firm, No Lie MRI, to conduct a "truth verification" scan if you're trying to prove you're on the level. Give it 10 years, ethicists say, and brain tools will be used regularly – sometimes responsibly, often shoddily.



  1. As someone who is studying in hopes of researching that general area I must say that from the technological POV most of that article is pure scaremongering:trying to detect what someone is thinking using fMRI gives results that need a lot of work by professional statisticians to give even vaguely usefull results.And that’s before we take into account that it samples each point in the brain only once every 3 seconds…

    And whatever people tell you we’re very far from understanding the brain on that level: as my one of my first year profs told us “we don’t understand what fish think yet.It would be a long time yet before we graduate to humans.”

  2. One thing we have over the fishes is our ability to tell the researcher what we are thinking about.

  3. The Mind Has No Firewall

    Maybe yours doesn’t- which is why you would pass on such a silly meme… ;P

  4. [somewhat offtopic]
    #5 – Link NOT followed. ;P
    As it could have led to something worse than goatse, or not, but that’s what firewalls do.
    [/somewhat offtopic]

    #2 – This does make me think of obfuscation strategies as are used against lie detectors. I’m sure MRI style analysis would get a bit more difficult if one was couting 1..10 and imaginging running while they asked you questions…

  5. oh,it’s MUCH worse than goatse. With Hungarian sub titles too. Go on. You know you want to….. if you don’t look, you’ll always wonder…. probably have trouble sleeping tonight – wondering…….

    I thought it was PET scans that really gave you away.

  6. here’s an angle: there has been some mention that MRI observable brain differences my mark out pedophiles.

    If you get scanned,what’s to keep them from scanning for EVERYTHING? And releasing/selling the findings?
    Suppose you have pedophile-linked brain morphology. Even though you have never done anything or felt any such urges, do they brand you?

  7. only if you’re a silverfish?

    I think implants, tattoo inks, etc. have to be ferromagentic (iron/nickel/cobalt) to induction heat and bugger the MRI.

    Is silver heavy enough? For diamagnetism?

    Another angle; if you know you are going under the Question via MRI or other scans, what could you dose yourself with to foil it – or to give you time to gnaw your own tongue out?

  8. hmmm, interesting. If anyone has read Iain M. Banks, culture books, The only privacy thats regarded as sacrosanct is a persons (or Minds) mind. Anything and everything else is fair game. However in cosmic socio-communist societies, property, energy, matter and data is unlimited, free and renewable (as well as being old hat, primitive and frowned upon).

    I hope not too off topic, but the author obviously has given it some thought..

    Personally, It wouldn’t surprise me if this is being investigated.
    We are already being photographed, recorded, time-stamped and monitored. Give technology time to catch up…

    Note on the Culture, by the author, linked below

  9. America is obsessed with “sin.” See the recent fervor over the Eliot Spitzer scandal, or the asymmetry between the reaction to Bill Clinton’s sexcapades, and George Bush’s endorsement of torture. Remember which one was impeached?

    Christianity teaches us that “sin” is not just limited to action, but also intent (Matthew 5:28).

    As obsessed as Americans are with exposing, shaming, and punishing “sinners,” is there any doubt that we will jump at the chance to police morality in the brain? We have laws in many states dictating what consenting adults can do with their genitals, why not have laws dictating what they can do with their brains?

    If anyone’s interested, I’ll be selling plans for tinfoil hats on my website for $35 each, $50 and I’ll throw in a roll of deluxe foil.

  10. “We’re going to be facing this question more and more, and nobody is really ready for it,”

    Except, you know, anyone who’s read just about anything by Philip K. Dick.

  11. @#13 G.Park: Citizens of any nation (not just Americans) are concerned (not obsessed) by abuse of trust and hypocracy (not sin, you whinging dolt) comitted by those that we grant authority.

  12. Meico
    “Maybe yours doesn’t- which is why you would pass on such a silly meme… ;P”

    Typical reaction from the wet pants crowd, just stick your fingers in your ears and go “lalalalalala I can’t hear you! Lalalalalalala….” and all those icky thoughts will disappear.

    The Mind Has No Firewall

    “The human body, much like a computer, contains myriad data processors. They include, but are not limited to, the chemical-electrical activity of the brain, heart, and peripheral nervous system, the signals sent from the cortex region of the brain to other parts of our body, the tiny hair cells in the inner ear that process auditory signals, and the light-sensitive retina and cornea of the eye that process visual activity. We are on the threshold of an era in which these data processors of the human body may be manipulated or debilitated.”

    Opening Pandora’s Box (562K PDF)

    “In this paper I have asked whether innovations in wireless and neurotechnologies are not in danger of shifting human behaviour towards a psychocivilised society, where greater emphasis is placed upon forms of social control and pre-emptive strategies. What are the moral and ethical implications of using wireless scanning surveillance technologies for evaluating pre-emptive behaviour based on thoughts and intentions alone? Is this not a dangerous path towards psycho-terrorising the social public? As Thomas (1998) reminds us, the mind has no firewall, and is thus vulnerable to viruses, Trojan horses, and spam. It is also vulnerable to hackers, cyber-terrorists, and state surveillance. Whilst this may sound a little too far-out, they are reasonable questions to ask if technologies are racing ahead of us in order to better get into our heads.”

    Food for thought I should think.

  13. nice summary article there Noen. Especially Pandora’s Box.

    Ah the irony; target/victims of early spookery using microwaves probably WERE able to get some relief from tin foil helmets.

  14. Sure the mind has a firewall. It has lots of firewalls.

    Scepticism, reason, logic, scientific method, Buddhist detachment and Christian charity are all firewalls of various kinds. They defend our mind against being taken in by advertising, suggestion, propaganda, fear-mongering, paranoia, and claims about Soviet-era quasi-psychic research that is surrounded by “might be”‘s and “if proven”‘s.

    The human mind is well-known to be frequently incapable of seeing a guy in a gorilla suit but apparently we are unable to resist the influence of images inserted in every 25th frame of a film. How we can miss the flaming obvious but be unable to ignore the nearly undetectable is one of the great mysteries of psychology.

    Someone clearly needs to perform an experiment in which the guy in the gorilla suit is wearing a Coca Cola logo, and ask the students if they prefer Coke and Pepsi afterwards. If there’s anything to this homeopathic view of perception, in which the least discernible phenomena have the largest effects, then surely an ad on a guy who people don’t even see would have the largest effect of all.

    The funny thing is that the paper itself tacitly admits that the mind has a firewall. If it did not you wouldn’t need all these subtle and sneaky (and mostly unproven) techniques to get around it.

  15. because i suspect technology will allow other people to scan my brain; i am purposely abusing alcohol such that i am burning a swear word into my brain. let em scam that.

    at least i think i am burning a swear word into my brain, getting alcohol to kill specific brain cells in specific places is tricky, but i figure as long as i don’t use the same font and sign style as those London Westminster signs i should be able to avoid a lawsuit.

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