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Brain Monitoring: An Ethical Assessment

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What if others could literally read your mind? That's a scary prospect! We are already under scrutiny by security cameras, traffic cameras, face recognition cameras, airport scanners, and other gadgets that monitor our actions and person. In the future we will need to be concerned about increasingly sophisticated devices to monitor our brains. Developments in magnetic resonance imaging and neuroscience make possible the detection of brain activity patterns with ever increasing detail.

"Mind reading" technologies such as this raise the specter of outsiders someday being able to read directly our thoughts, attitudes, and emotions. A recent article in the Boston Globe expressed concerns about brain privacy related to these monitoring devices and quoted well-known ethicist Arthur Caplan, who believes that "the ethical hot potato of this coming century is...knowledge of the brain, its structure, and function." Indeed the new term "neuroethics" has been coined to refer to discussion of this subject.

Admittedly, current technology is limited in its ability to detect changes in activity in different regions of the brain. Reading thoughts, emotions, and attitudes is not considered to be a possibility in the near term. However, scientific advancement often occurs much more rapidly than predicted. The Human Genome Project, to which brain monitoring technology has been compared, is an example of just such faster-than-predicted progress.

It is therefore never too early to consider the ethical implications of coming technological developments. Such consideration can prevent unnecessary spending on research considered to be unethical, as well as help ensure that appropriate guidelines are in place to regulate these technologies before they are implemented. All technology which is not immoral in itself has both risks and benefits. We must not allow concern about the possible risks to obscure the many potential benefits of brain monitoring.

This is especially true in medicine — the current target of most brain monitoring technologies — since the benefits of such technologies might include increased non-invasive detection of brain pathology or diagnosis of mental disorders, a better ability to target or deliver treatment, and improved post-treatment assessment. In addition, coupling external brain monitors with computers might aid people with communication difficulties, such as those who have suffered a stroke or who are afflicted with Lou Gehrig's disease. Human-computer interactions might also be improved without the need for invasive (and potentially more risky) direct neural-electrical links, such as the implantable computer chips that are already under evaluation. Furthermore, brain monitors might increase the accuracy of security clearance investigations, sanity and competency determinations, and criminal justice if sensitive and specific lie detectors and machines are able to accurately detect intent to commit a criminal act in repeat offenders.

But, what are the risks? Foremost is the ability to peer inside an individual's most private thoughts, attitudes, and intentions. This risks not only invasion of privacy, but the potential that information perceived as negative will be used against us. As with genetic screening, we might be blackmailed, denied insurance or employment, and experience the pain of being regarded as a social pariah. Also, the technology itself might affect our brains or cause us harm.

The accuracy of prediction is perhaps the most worrisome concern. All of us have thoughts and emotions of which we are ashamed and which we would never choose to act upon. But how could outside observers determine which thoughts and emotions we would and would not act on? Those with overly sensitive consciences might show increased activity in brain areas associated with guilt when they have merely thought of doing something they judge to be wrong. Applying brain monitoring technologies to such individuals would likely often result in a "false positive" outcome. Others who have little or no conscience (e.g., sociopaths) or who have been trained to "fool" the detector might show normal brain activity even when they have committed criminal actions or have compromised national security, thereby resulting in a "false negative" reading. Will there be a reliable way to sort out false positive and false negative tests and to distinguish between valid and invalid information? Who, if anyone, should have access to this information and for what reasons? Brain monitoring could become a subtle form of coercion, should its use be widely accepted. We might have to choose whether to submit to it or to forego a job, health and life insurance, military service, or a security clearance.

Most people would acknowledge that mental processes are multi-factorial. They include both the conscious and unconscious. Will we be able to detect the difference? How will we weigh the likely impact of unconscious information? Freud spoke of the "superego," "ego," and "id." For Christians, and some other faith groups, the mind includes not only the realm of knowledge, attitudes, emotions, and will, but conscience and the ability to perceive and relate spiritually. How would observers sort out these different aspects and their differing implications for action? The Bible teaches that God sees the thoughts and intentions of our hearts and that our own hearts are deceitful above all things and desperately wicked — making it difficult, if not impossible, for even the individual to truly understand his or her own thoughts and desires. How likely is it, then, that outside parties could understand them, and how will we know when they have really done so?

Misuse is a significant risk with any technology. The greater the risk, the greater the need to establish controls to minimize its abuse. At a minimum, we will need ethical and legal controls to protect us from unauthorized intrusion into our minds and possible misjudgments about our past deeds and thoughts and our future intents and actions. Most effective might be restrictions on the sale of brain monitoring equipment, ensuring that only licensed or sanctioned medical, legal, and other authorities can procure it. Regulations will also be needed to ensure validation of the accuracy of information obtained, to control use of the monitoring equipment (including which brain areas may be monitored and for what reasons), and to define what types of application are legal and under what circumstances. At a minimum, voluntary informed consent should be required for all uses, rather than monitoring being mandated by legal authority. Legislation should also determine which types of brain monitoring results may be used in legal, employment, security clearance, and other arenas.

Brain monitoring technology, like all technology, is a double-edged sword. It may be used for great good or harm depending on the circumstances. Certainly, it has the potential to invade our privacy to an unprecedented degree. Unlike all previous monitoring technologies, which are external to the person, brain monitoring technologies are highly intrusive. They could enable others to peer into the very core of our being. And yet, as we have seen above, our ability to understand even our own minds is limited, even though we have the most direct access to our thoughts, attitudes, and intentions. We must therefore proceed with great care, pondering the unique challenges of this emerging technology as we seek to take hold of its potential benefits.

On the net:The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity If this article has helped you in some way, will you say thanks by sharing it through a share, like, a link, or an email to someone you think would appreciate the reference.

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