Winter School of Ethics and Neuroscience – day 1: brain reading

The first day of the Winter School was composed of two long sessions. The morning session focused on brain reading: its current state of development, potential applications and ethical issues. As per today, brain monitoring techniques are quite far from “reading thoughts” just like a sound recorder would record a conversation, so our discussions on how ethical it is to potentially read thoughts without a person’s consent (and its implications for privacy) were very speculative.

(Picture source:, 31 May 2013. The winter school participants agreed that putting a brain scan in an article makes it intuitively more reliable, so here is one!)

My impression is that it is not that insightful to know what are the words and sentences that are generated by the brain at a certain moment, also because it is currently more effective to ask the person to tell them aloud. But what about lying? We had a complex discussion about how a brain reading device could detect lying. It could clearly be helpful in detecting if someone is saying yes while thinking no to a certain question; but how about cases of sincere wrong beliefs about given facts, or unconscious filtering of memory, or ill-formed questions? My thought is that it is more insightful to read the brain to know about the current mental state, than going for the high-level information conveyed by words. On that line, some studies tested the hypothesis that a certain set of emotions (and therefore specific mental activations) are triggered by recognising a scene in a picture and could tell for example if that person recognised the crime scene. My first objection is that the brain activation could come from recognising the scene for an unrelated reason, and would therefore be no solid proof.

I find that the application of brain reading in assisting justice would be risky if it were trusted to provide reliable data. The same applies for DNA analysis: if the overall reasoning is unsound, it could even be evidence against someone innocent. My take is that it is just like a new tool in the kitchen: it doesn’t automatically make you a better cook, but in the right hands it can make your job faster or more accurate.