Monday, July 06, 2015

Inside Out For Real: Brain Mapping and Privacy

Recently my wife and I went to see "Inside Out," the Pixar animated comedy about a girl named Riley and what her five personified emotions—Joy, Anger, Disgust, Fear, and Sadness—do in her brain when she's uprooted as her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco.  It sounds like an unlikely premise for any kind of a movie, but Pixar pulled it off, zooming into the minds of Riley, her mother, her father, her teacher, and even a few pets for good measure. 

The idea of getting inside somebody's brain to see what's really going on makes for a good fantasy, but what if we could do it now?  And not just in laboratory settings with millions of dollars' worth of equipment, but with a machine costing only a few thousand bucks, within the budget of, say, your average police department?  If you think about it, it's not so funny anymore.

Mind-reading technology is not just around the corner, to be sure.  But what gets me thinking along these lines, besides seeing "Inside Out," is an article about some new brain-scanning technology being used by Joy Hirsch and her colleagues at the Yale Brain Function Lab. 

The biggest advance in monitoring what's going on in a living brain in recent years has been fMRI, short for functional magnetic-resonance imaging.  This technology uses an advanced form of the familiar diagnostic-type MRI machine to keep track of blood flow in different parts of the brain.  Associating more brain activity with more blood-oxygen use, fMRI technology shows different brain areas "lighting up" as various mental tasks are performed. 

While great strides in correlating mental activities with specific parts of the brain have been achieved with fMRI, the machinery is expensive, bulky, and temperamental, involving liquid-helium-cooled magnets and cutting-edge signal processing systems that confine it to a few well-equipped labs around the world.  But now Joy Hirsch has come along with a completely different technology involving nothing more complex than laser beams and a fiber-optic piece of headgear that fits on your (intact) skull like a high-tech skullcap.  From the photo accompanying the article, it looks like you don't even have to shave your head for the laser beams to go through the skull and into the top few millimeters of the brain.  While that misses some important parts, a lot goes on in the upper layers of the cerebral cortex, much of which is within reach of Dr. Hirsch's lasers.  So she has been able to do a lot of what the fMRI folks can do, only with much simpler equipment.

Don't look for a view-your-own-brain kit to show up on Amazon any time soon, but my point is that this technology is almost bound to get cheaper and better, especially now that President Obama's brain-initiative research funds are attracting more researchers into the field.  So it's worth giving some thought to what the ethical implications of cheap, easily available brain-monitoring technology would be.

Philosophers have been here before anybody else, of course, with their consideration of what is known as the "mind-body problem."  The issue is whether the mind is just a kind of folk term for what the brain really does, or whether the mind is a separate non-material entity that is intimately related to the physical thing we call the brain.  Everybody admits that no two brains are physically identical.  But what does it mean to say that two people are thinking the same thing?  Say you had two bank-robbery suspects in custody and you asked each one where they were on the night of the robbery.  If both of them happened to be robbing the bank that night, the memory of the robbery would have to reside in each of the two brains.  So at some level, the same information would have to be present in each suspect's brain. 

But can technology ever get to the point where you could actually read out memories of things like bank robberies, without the subject's consent? 

It seems like the only safe thing to say at this point is that we don't know.  It's not clear, at this early stage of brain research, that there is enough commonality among brain structures even to hope that memories can be read out in any meaningful way, even if the subject spends hours or days cooperating with researchers and telling them exactly what he or she is thinking while they gather their brain-sensing data.  And crime suspects are not likely to do that.

What we're talking about is a sort of high-tech lie detector (polygraph) test.  And frankly, lie detectors have not made huge strides in law enforcement, maybe because they simply don't work that well.  That may be because we are at the point in brain-reading technology where music broadcasting was in 1905.  The only way you could broadcast music in 1905 was over telephone lines, and while there were some limited successes in this area, the technology was simply too primitive and expensive for music broadcasting to catch on.  It had to wait for the invention of radio (wireless) in the 1920s, which launched the broadcasting industry like a rocket.

Something similar might happen with brain-reading technology if it ever gets cheap and reliable enough.  Dr. Hirsch herself speculates that some day, instead of actually painting a picture with your hands, you'd only have to think the painting, and your brain-reader connected to a laser printer would finish the job.  Any technology that could do that could certainly give a second party some insight into your thoughts, possibly against your will. 

Currently, there are safeguards against the misuse of lie-detector tests.  But if a new technology comes along that is orders of magnitude more informative than the few channels of external data provided by a polygraph, the legal system might be caught with its safeguards down.  The current research regime of institutional review boards seems to do a fairly good job of protecting the rights of research subjects in these matters.  But if law-enforcement organizations with their very different priorities ever get the technical ability to scan brains for personal information, we are going to see a very different ball game, and new rules will be needed.

If you have a chance, go see "Inside Out."  It's funny and ultimately hopeful about the human condition of having emotions that are part of us, yet not under our complete control.  The same is true of our thoughts.  If we ever develop the ability to see another person's thoughts with any degree of accuracy, the amusing fantasy of that movie may become a reality we might not want to have to deal with.

Sources:  The original story on the Yale Brain Function Lab by AP reporter Malcolm Ritter can be read on the Associated Press website at, and appeared in numerous news outlets following its initial publication on June 22. 

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