If They Could Read Your Mind
Allen L. Barker
alb at datafilter.com
Wed Mar 10 22:38:48 EST 2004
[If these technologies are openly projected to exist in ten
years, imagine what the state of the art is in black "Skunk
Works" sorts of weapons laboratories (like those which produced
the stealth airplanes). They are working with sensors,
materials, and computer technologies that are advanced well
beyond what you'd find in a university science lab. They have
also long been funded specifically for this sort of work, while
open science funding has tended to be focused on other
questions and areas of research. Part of that shifted focus
has been deliberate; much of open science and engineering feeds
at the trough of government funding, in the pursuit of
government-specified goals. I won't even go into the direct
intersection of academia with the intelligence world, or into
strongarm tactics carried out against certain researchers.]
If They Could Read Your Mind
To a large extent, they already can. As neuroscientists hone new
technologies for probing our brains, predicting our behavior and
perhaps even altering our thoughts, ethicists wrestle with some
By Joan O'C. Hamilton
Illustrations by Peter Hoey
January 31, 2010. Your Local Hospital.
An ebullient Jim Perry pushes his wife Jean's wheelchair down the
hall. She's holding their cooing newborn, Nick. Just a quick stop at
the NeuroTesting Conference Office, then home to a new family life.
Dr. Deena hurries in and pops a CD into a computer. A pie chart
appears on the monitor. It's 98 percent green, with a thin slice of
red. "This is wonderful," says Dr. Deena. "No obvious structural
defects in the brain, and no raised susceptibility to Alzheimer's or
any other genetic diseases for which we have tests. It's a clean bill
"But the red area, what's that?" asks Jean.
Dr. Deena taps on the keyboard, and a chart titled "Future Concerns"
appears with two items in red: "Nicotine Addiction" and "Violence."
"I'm not a smoker," says Jean. "That must be a mistake."
"No," says Dr. Deena. "What this genetic test suggests is that
individuals with the same gene mutation that Nick has are 89 percent
more likely to become addicted to cigarettes if they try them,
compared with those without the mutation."
"Well, that's a no-brainer," says Jim. "We'll just make it very clear
to Nick that he's to never, ever try cigarettes. What about that
violence bit, though?"
"You know that brain scan Nick had last night" Studies suggest that
individuals with activity similar to his in the neocortex are 25
percent more likely to commit violent crimes."
"What kind of prediction is that?" says Jean.
"I agree it's weak. We don't even like doing the test, but the FBI is
moving ahead on a national database."
Jim clenches his jaw. "I don't want my boy in some database."
Dr. Deena sighs. "Mr. Perry, the nation's prisons are so overcrowded
that law enforcement has convinced Congress that tracking this group
is the answer to pinpointing and controlling violent personalities
very, very early. But I wouldn't worry. It's just as likely they'll
find that Nick lacks some other gene that's the real determiner."
"Will Nick's schools have to know about this? What about employers?"
"All good questions, Mr. Perry."
This is an imaginary conversation. But the technologies are real, and
the worries they raise are just a few years off. Neuroscientists are
rapidly learning to read and mold the human brain, and to predict
behavior and disease well into the future. Meanwhile, bioethicists at
Stanford and elsewhere are trying to keep pace by anticipating the
potential landmines. Those mines threaten to detonate across a broad
array of sectors -- from schoolroom to courtroom, hospital to voting
booth, homeland security to human rights.
Genetic manipulations such as cloning, fetal stem-cell transplants and
"designer genes" have triggered intense debate in recent years. But
probing the brain may strike an even more sensitive nerve. "Far more
than our genomes, our brains are us, marking out the special character
of our personal capacities, emotions and convictions," says
neurobiologist Donald Kennedy, editor-in-chief of the journal Science
and emeritus president of Stanford. "I already don't want my employer
or my insurance company to know my genome. As to my brainome, I don't
want anyone to know it for any purpose whatsoever. It is . . . my most
Kennedy, the Bing Professor of Environmental Science and Policy, spoke
in November at the annual meeting of the Society for Neurosciences,
delivering a follow-up talk on a conference organized by Stanford and
UCSF the year before. That pivotal gathering, in May 2002, brought
together dozens of bioethicists to forge a new field called
neuroethics. Today, neuroethics is a major focus of the Stanford
Center for Biomedical Ethics. At stake, says Stanford neuroethicist
Judy Illes, "is ultimately the protection and privacy of human
It's important to grapple with these concerns now, before the
technologies become part of daily life. University of Pennsylvania
bioethicist Arthur Caplan, who took part in the Stanford/UCSF
conference, wrote last September in Scientific American, "It is very
likely that advances in our ability to 'read' the brain will be
exploited . . . for such purposes as screening job applicants,
diagnosing and treating disease, determining who qualifies for
disability benefits and, ultimately, enhancing the brain."
The brain is not exactly unexplored terrain. Philosophers have long
pondered such notions as free will and the nature of thought pulsing
through our gray matter. "I think, therefore I am," Descartes
declared. And there have been myriad schemes to unlock or redirect our
thoughts and behaviors -- from truth serums to polygraphs, hypnotism to
lobotomies -- while pharmaceutical companies have made billions of
dollars selling relief from depression, anxiety, compulsions and other
In the past decade, however, the neurosciences have entered what
Kennedy calls "a period of extraordinary, perhaps unprecedented
promise." At Stanford and other leading research institutions,
scientists are already scanning the brain -- not just for defects,
disease and injury, but for patterns of thought and emotion,
meaningful precursors of behavior, and the mechanics of learning.
Classic magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) provides a high-resolution
view into the body, usually to illuminate structural defects, tumors
or injuries. But in recent years, refinements in MRI scanning have
allowed researchers to monitor identifiable changes in the brain in
response to stimuli or during directed thoughts. With this technique,
called functional MRI (fMRI), "we are able to make measurements of
brain function in a way we could not do before," says Illes.
The functions being measured aren't far removed from baby Nick's
"Future Concerns." Illes, who has surveyed neuroscientists' use of
fMRI, wrote in the March 2003 Nature Neuroscience: "Our analysis shows
a steady expansion of studies with evident social and policy
implications, including studies of human cooperation and competition,
brain differences in violent people and genetic influences on brain
structure and function." Complex behaviors and emotions -- such as fear,
lying, decision making, self-monitoring, moral dilemmas, and
assessments of rewards and punishment -- are all in play. So far, she
suggests, society has given little thought to how these technologies
and their volatile payloads will be used.
Brain scanning is not the only neurotechnology raising hackles. Drug
companies are pushing ahead with psychopharmaceuticals that raise a
host of ethical issues. As researchers struggle to come up with
remedies for Alzheimer's, for example, there arises the prospect of
drugs that don't just fix broken and battered memories, but could
perhaps enhance normal ones. And many neurological disorders have a
genetic component, prompting some of the same ethical questions raised
by other genetic tests. Decisions will have to be made, for instance,
on whether to offer tests for untreatable conditions, and who should
have access to the results.
This is familiar turf for ethicists assessing the high-profile Human
Genome Project, in part because ethical discussions were incorporated
into that effort since the beginning. "That hasn't happened in
neurosciences, where plenty of things will be happening much sooner,"
says Barbara Koenig, associate professor of medicine and former
executive director of the Stanford Center for Biomedical
Ethics. Koenig, an anthropologist, worries in particular that "the
brain offers a seductive promise of prediction." Predictions will span
a range of other domains, she believes, including future illness,
performance in school or work, violent behavior and even
addiction. "Whether or not those predictions prove to be
scientifically accurate may be less important than our belief in their
power," she warns.
Koenig is especially concerned about preliminary results being touted
as if they were conclusive, and the effects of early labeling on
kids. "There are such negative labeling implications for children,"
she says. "We have to keep premature findings from being turned into
marketable products for desperate parents."
In her own research, Koenig is asking the very question confronted by
the fictitious Nick Perry's parents: what if science could reliably
deliver evidence of a gene that would predispose a person to nicotine
addiction? She is assembling a wide-ranging scenario. Would such
evidence lead to a ban on smoking? If not, would it be more
cost-effective to intensify anti-smoking campaigns, or to develop an
anti-addiction vaccine or a gene therapy? Under what circumstances
would parents or a child be tested for a predisposition to addiction?
Might genes help predict which addicts will respond to different
therapies, such as drugs or behavioral approaches?
And that's just the beginning.
September 12, 2028. Your Local University.
Jean Perry brushes lint off Nick's blue blazer as they sit down before
a gray-haired gentleman in tweeds. This is Nick's freshman
pharmaceutical review board hearing, and Dr. Better is checking Nick's
file. "I have your application here for an Enhancement prescription,"
says Dr. Better, "but with your violent tendencies profile, we'll have
to ask you to agree to regular brain scans if we give you something
like Ritalin-3 or Focusalin."
"Yes. I'm willing to do that."
"Doctor," says Jean, "Nick has never shown any violent tendencies. We
just want him to have access to all the same study-aid drugs the other
"Of course, Mrs. Perry. I believe that will be fine. Now, on another
subject, I do have good news. We have reviewed Nick's
learning-sensitivity scans, and we have approved that he be tracked in
our more symbolic curriculum."
By the time Nick starts college, there could be a huge array of
"study-aid drugs." Even today, some students attempt to stay alert by
illegally taking drugs intended to treat attention deficit
disorder. Those drugs can have serious side effects, including
addiction, when used outside their approved parameters. But
neuroethicists are wondering how long it will be before drugs without
such severe side effects are tested as general-use "enhancers" -- a
term that raises an ethical red flag.
There are those, including President Bush's own Council on Bioethics,
who have suggested that technological tampering such as study
enhancement medication or genetic manipulations to boost intelligence
is inherently disturbing, perhaps unethical. Others say such tinkering
will be unfairly reserved for the rich. However, a number of
ethicists, including Stanford's David Magnus, co-director of the
Center for Biomedical Ethics, point out that many medical
interventions once considered enhancements -- eyeglasses, for
example -- eventually come to be viewed as elements of baseline
health. Further, Magnus notes that private schooling, travel and
exposure to the arts already boost the abilities of affluent students
but are not considered unethical.
How about Nick's "learning-sensitivity scans?" Here, the ethical
questions compete with exciting potential to help students with
learning differences. Last February, psychology professor John
Gabrieli demonstrated that the brains of dyslexic children can be
"rewired" by intensive reading training. He used fMRI brain scans to
"watch" dyslexic children react to various reading exercises. After
the kids received special training, Gabrieli scanned them again and
found that the dyslexic brains had become much more like those of
normal readers. Such scans could be part of an early battery of tests
designed to pick up dyslexia and other learning differences early in a
child's life, and educators could tailor special programs to a given
child's needs. For instance, some kids -- like Nick in our example --
appear to learn better using more symbol-based approaches, while
others benefit fom a more aural curriculum. Scans could save years
of frustration and trial and error in figuring that out.
June 16, 2032. Your Airport, International Terminal.
Fresh from his graduation summa cum laude, Nick and his parents make
their way through airport security for a celebratory trip to Paris and
Madrid. They toss their carry-on luggage on the belt scanner, then
stand beneath the Security Brain Wave Reviewer. A red light flashes, a
chime goes off and one of the technicians rushes to Nick's side. "I'm
sorry, sir, but I'll have to ask you to step into the interrogation
Jim hands the technician a laminated card identifying Nick as a member
of the National Violence Propensity Database. "He's been a genetic
Level 2 since birth. If you just run the card, it'll validate that
he's had no violent incidents."
"I'm sorry, sir, we're on high alert today. He'll have to be
"C'est la vie," sighs Jean.
Outlandish, you say? Illes doesn't think so. Advances in MRI, combined
with a post-9/11, security-oriented climate, could yield developments
like brain scanners in airports and even schools in as little as 10
years, she predicts. At that point, it's unlikely a comprehensive
ethical framework will be in place to avert misgivings about their
Such concerns range from the reliability and calibration of equipment
in the hands of relatively unskilled people to the invasiveness of the
procedure. Suppose, for example, a woman is in the middle of an ugly
divorce as she attempts to board a plane for a much-needed
vacation. Should she really have to account for the angry brain waves
bouncing around in her head to convince some airport security employee
she's not a terrorist? How would the brain waves of an NFL football
player appear as he prepared to board a plane to battle in the Super
January 1, 2033. Your Local Courthouse.
Nick Perry and his attorney are surrounded by reporters. He has
emerged victorious from the first successful use of what legal experts
are calling the Truth Scanner. "The science of using brain scans in
pursuit of justice has entered a triumphant new phase," announces
defense attorney Gus Healey. "It's about time we allowed unjustly
accused defendants to prove their innocence."
A reporter calls out: "But Mr. Healey, aren't some people worried we
haven't tested these devices enough and that anybody who's
uncomfortable with a scan will be presumed guilty?"
"Combined with other evidence, we feel the technology is now an
important piece of a good defense," says Healey. "We don't need to go
to the eighth decimal point."
"Nick, how do you feel about being exonerated?"
"Great," Nick says. "The idea that I was going to use my shaving cream
to hijack that plane was preposterous. I've spent six months trying to
prove my innocence just because a dumb airport scanner went off and an
even dumber security guard overreacted to a joke."
"So, what's next for you, Nick?"
"Well, I hope to take that long-awaited trip to Europe," Nick grins,
lighting a cigarette. "I've always wanted to see a bullfight."
It's no hyperbole to suggest that technologies that can illuminate the
shifting and shadowy world of veracity and memory could turn our legal
system upside down. "The invention by neuroscientists of reliable
truth-detecting or truth-compelling methods could have substantial
effects on almost every trial and on the entire judicial system, and
the constitutional questions are many and knotty," contends Stanford
law professor Henry Greely, chair of the steering committee for the
Center for Biomedical Ethics.
Could most crimes be solved long before trial if everybody took a
truth test? What happens when two witnesses with different stories are
both shown to be speaking honestly? What about false memories? Does
the right not to incriminate oneself extend to refusing to have one's
brain read? If criminal defendants are due impartial jury trials,
would attorneys press to use brain scans to probe for juror bias? For
really volatile cases, could a jury ever be found to be entirely fair?
We may not have too much more time to work through those issues. An
Iowa company called Brain Fingerprinting Laboratories Inc. says it has
technology that can identify specific kinds of brain waves people emit
when they are looking at or discussing something they've seen
before -- in other words, when they've already formed a memory. The
company aims to use the technology in the legal system to help
innocent defendants prove they were not, for example, present at a
crime scene. In 2001, a judge allowed the results of a "brain
fingerprinting" test to be entered as evidence in the review of an
MRI machines may also become improved lie detectors. At the University
of Pennsylvania, psychiatrist Daniel Langleben has found that when
people lie, increased activity in several brain regions is visible in
an fMRI scan. At present, traditional polygraphs -- which mainly measure
anxiety associated with lying -- are not considered accurate enough to be
introduced in court. Will these new technologies become admissible?
The courts will likely confront another bioethical minefield: findings
on brain injury in violent criminals. In a 1986 study of the next 15
death-row prisoners slated to be executed, researchers discovered that
each man had suffered a serious brain injury, yet none of their
attorneys had raised the issue. If brain scans unveil injuries that
create a propensity for violent acts, it "will significantly change
the way we look at criminal justice," says William Winslade, an
attorney and professor of philosophy of medicine at the University of
November 30, 2056. Your Local Hospice.
Nick's estranged wife, Helen, stands with their son, Troy, at Nick's
bedside. Helen and Nick have had a volatile marriage, plagued by
Nick's alcoholism and occasional violent outbursts. They've lived
apart for the past four years, but he's dying and she's returned to
his side. (Scans have shown that Helen's brain is unusually developed
in an area linked to loyalty.) She is relieved that Troy has not
inherited his dad's genes for addictive tendencies, especially since
it was shown in 2025 that susceptibility to nicotine addiction was not
a discrete gene after all, but stemmed from a host of genetic and
"Dad sure looks peaceful, Mom," says Troy. "I know it was hard, but
you did the right thing with the pain-erase memory implant."
Helen sighs. "You were right. No time for ancient history now. I saw
my own father die, and he was so debilitated by his regrets and
guilt. This is much better."
"It's the humane thing."
Nick stirs in the bed. His eyes flutter open. "Helen," he whispers,
"we've had a wonderful life, haven't we?"
"We were luckier than most people."
"I just hope our son can look back someday and feel at least as much
pride and satisfaction as I do right now."
Troy steps forward and takes his hand. "Don't worry, Dad. I can
practically guarantee that I will."
What if we could implant new memories in a person's head, "writing
over," in effect, their traumas in hopes of calming a fractured
psyche? Researchers are investigating therapeutic drugs and implants
that might, for example, erase the memory of a violent assault or a
wartime experience. Will we someday truly forgive and then literally
Taking it further, might an implantable chip give us instant
proficiency in a foreign language or in-depth technical acumen -- or
instill a new political bent, or a willingness to follow any order?
Could we ever be sure that our thoughts and memories were our own?
As Greely points out, it's the bioethicist's job to look
disproportionately at troubling consequences. The benefits of the new
neurotechnologies may far outweigh their threats. Yet as we probe ever
deeper into the three-pound universe in our heads, surely the
manipulation of what we've learned "the hard way" would be one of the
most chilling intrusions of all.
JOAN O'C. HAMILTON '83, is a frequent contributor to STANFORD.
Mind Control: TT&P ==> http://www.datafilter.com/mc
Home page: http://www.datafilter.com/alb
More information about the Neur-sci