Images of an MRI brain scan

Hands off my brain

Should the contents of the brain be private property?

We sometimes go to extreme lengths to prevent people knowing what we are thinking. The most successful poker players have deadpan faces so that other players do not know what kind of hands they have. Or, in everyday life, we might tell the odd little white lie, or not tell someone what we really think about them if we want them to help us.

But suppose our real, inner thoughts could be laid bare. Functional imaging provides a powerful view of our inner thought processes, revealing things that our outer expression may be hiding.

It has revealed that people respond differently to black faces than they do to white faces – evidence of hidden racial prejudice? And there is considerable interest in using such tools to spot when people are lying. There are characteristic patterns of brain activity that light up when people are not telling the truth (though brain scanners are not 100 per cent accurate as lie detectors at the moment).

This may be seen as intrusive. In the USA the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics argues: “What and how you think should be private unless you choose to share it.”

Supporters say that brain scanning could be put to great use – identifying potential paedophiles seeking to work in schools, or helping the police solve crimes. On the other hand, even if they were infallible (and they are not) the meaning of scanning results is open to interpretation. We have instinctive responses but that does not mean we always act on them.

You are the regulator

Read through these case studies and decide for yourself your position. You may also like to debate and discuss these topics in the classroom.

Case study 1

Shifty Sam Fencer has been arrested by the police searching for missing bullion. He denies everything. They are convinced he is lying and would like to do a brain scan to prove it.

  • Should the police be allowed to scan Sam’s brain?
  • Would it make a difference if a child were missing rather than bullion?
  • Should there be any limits on how the police use brain scans to solve crimes?

Case study 2

Giselle Megabucks, a top R&B singer and noted celebrity, wants to scan her boyfriend’s brain to check that he really loves her.

  • Should she be allowed to?
  • If he agrees, is there any reason to refuse?
  • Should any limits be placed on the use of such scans?

Lead image:

David Foltz/Flickr CC BY NC

Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Thinking’ in September 2006 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Neuroscience, Psychology
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development