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

  1. sc's Gravatar sc
    March 1, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    I believe that it is critically important to consider the ramifications of issues such as these preemptively. While it may not be exactly hyperbolic to state that we are “nowhere near being able to read … thoughts,” as soon as a company thinks this is a worthy goal and starts to invest heavily in it, the growth will be rapid.

    I do not believe that anyone should at all suggest that this is an impossible endeavor, unfortunately. Just because our current imaging technologies are not up to the task does not mean that a more sensitive measure, or a paradigm shifting one, may not be on the horizon.

    I would agree that we are relatively far from such technology, but with the current accelerations of technological growth and neuroscience understanding, it would not be surprising to see within the next 50 years.

    Also, a light year is a measure of distance and not time. So, unless there is a suggestion that no one within a radius of 9.4×10^21 m has access to this technology, then that quote may have been given in error.

    • Martha Farah's Gravatar Martha Farah
      March 1, 2011 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

      Hello and thanks for the reasonable comments. I agree that one should never discount the possibility of a “paradigm shift,” but I feel confident that the extrapolation of current brain imaging methods will not get us there. And given concerns about mind reading with current technology expressed by some members of the public in attendance, it seemed worth making the point in loud & clear terms. There is some impressive work being done to read mental information from the brain. But relative to real mind-reading, it’s like climbing trees to get to the moon — you can make some progress away from the ground and toward the moon, but only so far. Speaking of celestial bodies, I was using a distance analogy — we’re nowhere close, we’re light years away — but it did get lost in quotation! Thanks again for your thoughts. Martha

  2. tmk81's Gravatar tmk81
    March 2, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    Just because public research is far from mind reading doesn’t mean it is not being done… clandestinely. Even Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, admits “Our biggest problem has always [been] how do we get into the head of somebody”. Note the word BIGGEST. It’s narrow views like those of Dr. Martha Farah that have been leading society to be caught with its pants down.

  3. March 3, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    The use of language here is extremely important. There’s a skip from neuroimaging to science with the conclusion derived from neuroimaging applied on the broader level of science. There is a whole other area of neuroscience involving detecting and decoding electrical impulses which was not even discussed at all. Neuroimaging fundamentally measures mass which limits what can be done with respect to brain research drastically.

    Although we saw the letter “M” on the back of the brain by neuroimaging techniques where sight images are processed, we did not see any neurological work that reflected decoding electrical impulses such as was reported by the BBC News in 1999 where the ability to look through a cat’s eyes was accomplished: The Commission has utterly failed to bring to the surface this aspect of neuroscience today.

    I make a similar analogy between mind reading today versus the inadequacy of neuroimaging to accomplish this at all. There has been a lack of any consideration given by the Commission to that branch of neuroscience which decodes electrical impluses that would reveal thoughts (words, sentences and images). This is completely different from neuroimaging.

    I am quite concerned about this dismissal which is valid for neuroimaging being used on a broader basis when applied to science or other areas of neuroscience. My concern comes from the facts of my experience for the past decade where those people well known to me using neuroscience based surveillance technology have been able to read my thoughts (words, sentences and images) and repeat back to me what I am thinking by means of electronic transmission of sound, aka, Voice-to-Skull (V2K) so called by the US Army. I will go one step further and say that thoughts can be made audible in this manner, so that what one thinks in terms of words and sentences come out of a speaker because I hear my thoughts through S2K on a slight delay basis.

    Those among the 22 public speakers at the end who reported the same experiences from various parts of the US that I have experienced in London revealed that this exists on a global basis and is being carried out as experiments on non-consensual human subjects as these people repeatedly described while they pleaded for help from the Commission to save their lives.

    John Donnelly wrote “But one issue not on the table: whether new technology can help read minds — because it can’t.” This is the language problem. “New technology” is limited to neuroimaging when the Commission did not even consider other areas of neuroscience such as decoding the brain’s electromagnetic radiation emissions. “Science isn’t close to enabling researchers to read the thoughts of others, Farah said in an interview.” continues John Donnelly. Again this is a language usage fallacy. One cannot extrapolate a narrow area of research and application to a broader base.

    The Commission has done itself and the public a great disservice by not considering all aspects of neuroscience or even science that might be applicable. I think that the Commission needs to go back to this area and do it justice by a thorough review of the current state of neuroscience that takes in decoding electrical impulses of the brain. What is actually being done is far, far from what is being presented by this Commission so far. This hole needs to be filled in, and those who speak from the public listened to very carefully. They are at the forefront of abuse by research.

  4. Derek D. Brodie's Gravatar Derek D. Brodie
    March 4, 2011 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    Pesonally if an individual was to actually try to read another individuals mind I believe it would entail this process. Find the vibratory frequency of the tissue of said subjects brain. Then pass that frequency at a low level through said tissue. Being received on the other side of said subjects head the frequency could then be analyzed for distortion due to electrical field functioning in brain processes. If the electrical field of the brain can be mapped. Then an individuals brain can be read by the fluctuations of said fields. Personal opinion not researched.

  5. Peter Rosenholm's Gravatar Peter Rosenholm
    March 4, 2011 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    Session 3 of Bioethics Commission

    At about 45 minutes into this Session 3 video of the bioethics Commission Lisa Becker asks a question and in Dr. Farah’s response she says subvocal speech recognition is only speech and not mind reading. If knowing a subjects unspoken thoughts is not mind reading then what is mind reading.

    I have written on how millimeter wave surveillance that measure heart and breathing rates as well as sweating as being used in concert with V2K/MEDUSA (microwave hearing effect) as being used as a remote lie detector or to enhance remote no-touch-torture using other directed energy weapons. We need to consider emergent and current technology as being components of a weapons system.
    Another example might be to stimulate a part of the brain to bring up a memory. Subvocal speech recognition could be used to read the subjects unspoken thought. Similar results might be obtained with brain imaging/FMRI.
    No longer can one technology be considered just by its self.

    Peter Rosenholm

  6. Jeff's Gravatar Jeff
    March 4, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Permalink
  7. March 9, 2011 at 3:33 am | Permalink

    Neuroscientists are already able to read some basic thoughts, like whether an individual test subject is looking at a picture of a cat or an image with a specific left or right orientation. They can even read pictures that you’re simply imagining in your mind’s eye. Even leaders in the field are shocked by how far we’ve come in our ability to peer into people’s minds. Will brain scans of the future be able to tell if a person is lying or telling the truth? Suggest whether a consumer wants to buy a car? Reveal our secret likes and dislikes, or our hidden prejudices? While we aren’t there yet, these possibilities have dramatic social, legal and ethical implications…

  8. March 18, 2011 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    The inference of human “verbal thinking” from EEG data had already been demonstrated by Dr Lawrence Pinneo et al by August 1975. Just search the web for “Feasibility Study for Design of a Biocybernetic Communication System”. Pinneo’s DoD-funded project was said to have been “predicated” on “existing” pre-1972 evidence, that verbal thought was “represented” in the electrical activity of the muscles of the vocal apparatus.

  9. Edward Lee's Gravatar Edward Lee
    March 18, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    Studys that show mind reading is very near.

    Brain wave recognition of words.
    Brain-wave recognition of sentences.
    Invariance of brain-wave representations of simple visual images and their names.
    Read More links like above
    Brain Power:
    Intel Brain Reading MAchine
    View more such news and video at Mind Reading Technology

  10. March 21, 2011 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    The capacity to infer human “verbal thinking” from EEG data was demonstrated by Dr Lawrence Pinneo in time to publish in August 1975. Search the web for the report title, “Feasibility Study for Design of a Biocybernetic Communication System.”

  11. Dr. John Hall's Gravatar Dr. John Hall
    April 14, 2011 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    In Farah’s defense, she’s obviously not privvy to the research being done in classified intelligence circles. “Mind Reading” per say is not being researched through advances in imaging technology. Historically, its been researched through radio frequency modalities. Currently, the University of California at Irvine is studying synthetic telepathy where war-fighters may communicate via thought with each other in the field. One would assume that the technology has been reasonably well defined unidirectionally if they are looking for the ability to network it between individuals. Also historically, the US has a bad habit of testing now and apologizing later with regard to non-consensual experimentation. I assume the thousands of victims of this research can expect their apology around 2030! That’s about how long it took to see an apology for Tuskegee, Guatemala and the radiation experiments!

  12. Maria's Gravatar Maria
    May 13, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    Without addressing the “mind reading” comments, I think it’s imperative for the Commission to address the issue of ethics with a variety of so-called non invasive techniques. These would include brain imaging techniques as well as other known technologies, such as deep brain stimulation and rTMS, which are used to affect brain activity, not simply monitor it.

    I don’t think that this should be limited to monitoring or intervening corporations who use non invasive technologies, but even their use by researchers. I am particularly concerned with the issue of consent. From a legal perspective, it appears that human subjects protection laws have not caught up to the present day technologies.

    What is the difference between an involuntary lobotomy of the past and involuntary brain interventions that are possible with current technologies? At what point will all involuntary research that involves more than minimal risks be banned across the board? Who is going to set up oversight for not only Federally funded research, but for research funded by any institution?

    Signed, a victim

  13. nm's Gravatar nm
    May 16, 2011 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    60 minutes TV show and transcripts on ‘mind reading’

    On the 60 minutes TV show– Dr Marcel Just, the Director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon University was interviewed by Leslie Stahl. Dr. Just used fMRI for what he referred to as “thought identification” rather than mind reading. transcript exerpt follows:

    “Do you think one day, who knows how far into the future, there’ll be a machine that’ll be able to read very complex thought like ‘I hate so-and-so’? Or you know, ‘I love the ballet because…’?” Stahl asked.

    “Definitely. Definitely,” Just said. “And not in 20 years. I think in three, five years.”

    “In three years?” Stahl asked.

    “Well, five,” Just replied with a smile.

    This is a far cry from Farah’s statement ‘not in a million years’

  14. June 1, 2011 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    Reading mind really doesn’t sound like something impossible. Japanese researhcers reported reading simple figures visualized in mind and now entire sentences can be read. I think it’s just a matter of about 20 years or so.
    Jeff, great article about satellite.

  15. August 18, 2011 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    I don’t think that is going to happen in the next 50 years or so. Thoughs are very transient and unstable so reading thoughs requires literally fantastic speed and sensitivity from the scanner. ANd when it happens, on the one hand, that sounds like an amazing innovation opening immense horizons, for example, for disabled people or even communicating with animals. However, privacy of the thoughts is the major concern for me.

  16. January 7, 2012 at 5:36 am | Permalink

    Brain wave recognition and even sending impulses to the brain does not seem fantastic at all, and looks like development of ethical regulations need to be initiated now. Otherwise, not just the privacy of our lives but even our will may face serious challenges in the nearest future.

  17. January 15, 2012 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    I can’t see this happening in the near future. Dispite our thoughts being seemingly clear and consice, the manner in which our brains think (speak?) isn’t concise, E.g. even whilst I’m writing this my thoughts have flitted to what I’ll have for dinner tonight and about a football game I watched this morning.

    Regardless, privacy is of course a major issue to consider.

  18. November 23, 2012 at 1:13 am | Permalink

    I am sorry but even if technologically its possible , I would not want it to exist . I don’t want others to read my private thoughts.

    Imagine the sort of advertisements that will be thrown at it once this happens !!! we wouldn’t stand a chance.

  19. Dr. David Day's Gravatar Dr. David Day
    February 11, 2013 at 2:41 am | Permalink

    Is mind reading and the detection of pre-verbalized speech treated as the same concept. I’m a bit surprised that the commission has so many experts stating that thought detection is not possible. I believe the purpose of a choclear implant is to help deaf individuals hear their own pre-verbalized speech while it is still in thought form with computerized assistance. This is neccessary for anyone to speak. These are medical implants that have been utilized for aproximatly two decades. Furthermore, the detection of the brains own imagery, also in part a thought process, is now possible via a intercranial implants. It is utilized for blind individuals with micro cameras embedded in eye glasses that direct a signal to the implanted chip. This is not decades away technology. The ethical implications become protectiong citizens from the malicious utilization of these these medical chip arrays which can be reproduced. Implanting like-chip arrays in someone without a handicap would be a grotesque constitutional and humanitarian crime essentially, invading the human soul itself. Protecting computer networks that assist those already implanted with the above mentioned devices for medical purposes becomes a paramount ethical issue with medical and enginering advancements. It is now even possible to assist an individual’s actual physical movement via an implanted chip array that stimulates the central nervous system. This is a medical technology currently being utilized to assist individuals with spinal cord injuries. Because it’s injection point is the central nervous system, it is plausable that the three functions the three chip arrays mentioned above, pre-verbalized speech, eyesight and movement, can be combined in one implant or electrode. In the wrong hands, this could essentially represent a torturers paradise.
    Dr. David R.F. Day
    Thornton, NH

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