The blog of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues

Read your mind? Not in a ‘million light years’

The members of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues received a primer today on recent advances in the use of medical technology on neuro-imagery. It was a session that Dr. Gregory House of the TV show House would have found fascinating – especially the multiple uses of MRI machines to help detect hard-to-diagnosis diseases.

The Commission is considering whether to embark on examining ethical issues surrounding the uses of neuro-imagery and genetic testing.

A panel of scientists said that one cutting-edge ethical issue now involves how private companies could use this technology for what they called “neuro-marketing” in order to advance the sale of products.

But one issue not on the table: whether new technology can help read minds — because it can’t.

Such technology “is a million light years away,” said Dr. Martha Farah, the Walter H. Annenberg Professor in Natural Science and Director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania.

Science isn’t close to enabling researchers to read the thoughts of others, Farah said in an interview. Still, though, she knows people fear that it will happen. She said she gets asked about it frequently.

“We are nowhere near being able to read sentences or thoughts that are the equivalent of sentences,” Farah said. “But it is the case that we can derive a fair amount of personal information including current mental states, such as mood, intentions, and desire to buy an object” from Functional MRIs, or fMRIs.

But the interpretation of brain imagery, captured in fMRIs, was far from perfect, she said. “There is a lot of significant personal information from fMRIs. It is with a degree of accuracy that is far from perfect, but is well above chance.”

That leads Farah to be wary of neuro-marketing. “The biggest ethical issue to me is the fact that many of the most exciting new applications of brain imaging are being developed entirely with private corporate funding for commercial purposes,” she said. “I don’t think that is going to give us the best new contributions to society, and I don’t think that is going to lead to the greatest transparency concerning what these scans can do.”

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This is a space for the members and staff of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to communicate with the public about the work of the commission and to discuss important issues in bioethics.

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