Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology has the potential to read our minds and is advancing at a rapid rate. In a new book which explains the technology, its limitations and its considerable promise, two Cambridge neuroscientists say that the time has come to debate the ethical issues around brain scanning.
Rapid advances in brain scanning technology and its capacity to “read” human minds mean that there is a pressing need to plan for how and when we will use it in the future, according to a new study.
In a new book, Sex, Lies & Brain Scans, the neuroscientists Professor Barbara Sahakian and Julia Gottwald argue that there needs to be an open, public debate about functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. This fast-developing brain scanning technology has immense potential to benefit society, they say, but also raises considerable ethical dilemmas.
fMRI enables researchers to observe which areas of the brain are most active when people perform particular tasks, experience specific emotions, or imagine certain scenarios. Although it has important limitations, the technology is improving all the time, and before long the researchers suggest that it could make ideas that once seemed science fiction a reality.
Among other possibilities, their book envisages a near future in which fMRI might enable accurate lie detection in courtrooms, anti-terrorist screening systems at airports, a Minority Report-style justice system in which criminals can be singled out before they actually commit any crimes, and corporate “neuromarketing” in which businesses exert more control over how much consumers want products and adjust their prices accordingly.
While fMRI has made these prospects more feasible, its limitations are too great to make any of them entirely possible at the moment. The authors argue that because of both these shortcomings and its increasing potential, society needs to start developing guidelines and ethical frameworks to cope with the technology as it advances.
Both researchers work at the University of Cambridge Department of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience Institute. Barbara Sahakian is Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology, while Julia Gottwald is a PhD student and a member of St John’s College, University of Cambridge.
“Even though fMRI cannot read minds yet, we need to start deciding how and why we might want to use it, where screening might help, and where it might violate privacy,” Gottwald said. “Because the technology is advancing so rapidly, these kinds of questions are becoming more and more pressing.”
“The aim of the book is to give readers the basics about an exciting and emerging field. When the public read about fMRI in the media, they get basic facts, but often out of context. People need to understand its potential and limitations, so that together we can make better judgements about this technology, and how far we want it to go. These questions concern all of us.”
fMRI has been developing at a rapid rate since the 1990s. It tracks changes in the brain related to blood flow, picking up on the magnetic properties of oxygenated blood which flows to parts of the brain that are particularly active. This allows researchers to observe how the brain is responding to different stimuli in real time.
The benefits of being able to do this have been clear for many years. For example, fMRI has already been used to identify conscious activity in patients who were thought to be in a vegetative state. Researchers have also used it to build what are known as “semantic maps” showing that certain parts of our brain respond very consistently to certain concepts, such as numbers or colours. This mapping could be used to help identify limitations or disabilities in individuals that might previously have gone undetected.
As it stands, however, most complex processes cannot be traced back to a brain region that does not serve another purpose, making many fMRI results somewhat ambiguous. Our sense of morality, for example, which we might wish to assess in order to identify potential criminals, appears to be linked to the same brain areas as emotional and social cognition. Contrastingly, highly influential characteristics such as self-control are not uniformly linked to a single region at all.
The new study points out that, partly because of this, we should be cautious about efforts that are currently being made to use fMRI for advanced applications such as lie detectors in court. While some companies have started to market the technology for this purpose, its accuracy is still far less than 100%. For instance, fMRI can only reflect a subject’s beliefs, and therefore does not account for circumstances where a witness may have misremembered an event, or simply imagined it.
Yet, as the authors also observe: “While many applications are still science fiction, they might become reality sooner than we imagine”. fMRI brain scans are approaching a stage where they might be used to spot abnormal activations when exercising moral judgement, for example – potential which, once fulfilled, could enable security services and the police to identify terrorists or criminals before they actually cause any harm. The book points out that this will raise difficult moral questions, starting with whether someone should be apprehended or imprisoned for a crime that they have not yet committed.
Parallel issues are likely to emerge in commerce. Researchers have long predicted the emergence of “neuromarketing”, in which companies will be able to determine the success of a product by analysing the inner workings of consumers’ brains, and refining its characteristics to influence their judgement.
In the right hands, this enhanced marketing could have widespread benefits – for example, by making healthy foods more attractive. But as the authors observe, there is no code of conduct to which corporations are presently expected to subscribe when using the technology. “Academics have clear guidelines about how to conduct fMRI studies and how to avoid harm,” they write. “If a company buys an fMRI machine and decides to use it for neuromarketing purposes, there are few regulations and supervisions.”
“Given where the technology is going, it is not unrealistic to say that we will see some very useful applications becoming available in the not too distant future,” Gottwald added. “We will need clear guidelines to ensure that this is implemented to the public’s best advantage.”
Sex, Lies & Brain Scans is published by Oxford University Press, and is available now.
Inset image: Julia Gottwald (left) and Barbara Sahakian