If You Could Read My Mind, Love…

“If you could read my mind, Love, what a tale my heart could tell,” sang Canadian folk-rocker Gordon Lightfoot several decades ago. Some think the singer-songwriter may soon have to revise his hit tune: “When you read my mind, Love, what a tale my heart will tell.” That’s how it’ll go if a group of German scientists have their way.
A recent report by the Associated Press out of Berlin claims that researchers at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience are able to predict the decisions their subjects will make while performing relatively high-level mental activities, such as math. The investigators are using an MRI to peer into brains. Predictable patterns of neural activity provide significant clues to whether, for instance, the subject intends to add or subtract the numbers in front of her.
The ever-vigilant civil liberties lobby is already raising a red flag about the implications of these experiments. Here’s why. Dr. Paul Wolpe of the University of Pennsylvania observes, “The fact that we can determine what intention a person is holding in his mind pushes the level of our understanding of subjective thought to a whole new level.” Psychologist Todd Braver of Washington University adds, “The barriers that we assumed existed in reading our minds keep getting breached.” Comments such as these bring to some civil-libertarian minds the 2002 Tom Cruise sci-fi flick, “Minority Report.”
“Minority Report” starts with the premise that a select trio of human seers, afloat in a pool of water and wired to a computer net, foresee crimes before they are committed. Cruise and his fellow thought-police then make pre-emptive arrests. The rub is that would-be criminals are punished much as if they actually committed the crimes. That’s like gaining weight without eating the candy or drinking the beer. It’s like lung cancer without benefit of cigarettes. If I’m headed for hell, at least let me enjoy my sins!
The harder rub is that every once in a while one of the trio of sooth-sayers disagrees with the other two. The result is a minority report. If a minority report is ignored, an innocent person, who never even (to paraphrase Jimmy Carter) sinned in his heart, gets punished? That seems like kind of a double jeopardy thing to me. Tom Cruise, of course, doesn’t sweat this issue much, until he’s that innocent victim.
I met a pretty good mind reader once… in the summer of 1978. She was an old gal who lived in an even-older house on Union Boulevard in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. For ten bucks, she would spread out her tarot cards and tell you all about yourself. Several of the ladies in my clan raved about her. Skeptically I gave her a go. Twenty minutes later I left her parlor in absolute astonishment.
What did she tell me that shook my skepticism to its soles? Well, ’78 was the summer I started into law school. “I see you coming into contact with a lot of lawyers,” she said. This would have given most of her customers apoplexy, I suppose, but under the circumstances it intrigued me.
“I see you worrying about home repairs. I see gutters and downspouts.” The day before, I’d written to our house painter back in Cleveland, asking him to scrape and paint our home’s gutters and downspouts. And so the session continued…
She plucked details out of my wine-besotted brain with chilling precision. She didn’t need a million-dollar MRI either. But, could the old pow-wow lady predict the future? I don’t believe so. Otherwise, she probably would have bought herself a handful of lottery tickets and told us where we could stick our ten-dollar bills.
The AP news story says that “scientists are making enough progress to make ethicists nervous.”
I think the civil liberties folks and the “ethicists” should all relax for the time being. Neither my Pennsylvania Dutch pow-wower on Union Boulevard nor the new breed of Berlin-based brain-busters is likely to come up with a practical way to predict what you and I will decide to do any time soon. I think Old Gordo’ can keep right on singing his same old tune for a while longer.

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