Fears of Brain Scans Outstrip Reality
Royal Holloway fMRI Scanner.
CREDIT: University of Surrey
Today's brain imaging is mostly limited to diagnosing disease and doing lab research, even if brain scans have also crept into some courtrooms as legal evidence. But people have already begun to wonder if brain scans could someday reveal political leanings, predict career paths, identify criminals from childhood, pick out terrorist intentions or even peek into our dreams.
There's good news for worriers from an informal survey of brain imaging experts and the public. A majority of expert respondents believe brain scans likely won't ever effectively detect lies, read minds and understand consumer or criminal behavior or that it's only something to worry about in the distant future. Yet some experts still believed brain scans could contribute something to understanding each of those areas.
Most experts reported using brain scans as tools for neuroscience or clinical research and medical diagnosis. But a small minority said they had used brain scans for so-called neuromarketing targeted at understanding consumer behavior, as well as during forensic investigations and for security screening.
The public judged brain scans as most effective for diagnosing brain diseases. But people had less confidence in brain scans for diagnosing mental illness, and only some thought it was a good tool for lie detection or figuring out consumer preferences. Even fewer thought brain imaging could detect racial attitudes or political views, let alone read minds.
Similarly, an overwhelming majority of public respondents felt comfortable about undergoing brain scans for medical reasons or for scientific research, but only a little more than a third would have done the same as part of a criminal investigation. Most opposed the idea for insurance purposes, marketing research or job interviews.
Despite a lack of confidence in many brain scan applications, most public respondents also worried about the confidentiality of stored brain scans. A majority had concerns about being forced to have a brain scan, and more than half also worried that "people would know what they were thinking" or find "something wrong with their brain."
The irony of the public disliking brain scans as invasive tools peeling back their privacy is that corporations and governments don't even need brain imaging to find out about a person's wants or motives. Rather than try to understand people from brain scans, such entities only need to turn to a person's online behavior as recorded on the Internet.
Data-mining software can already track the digital footprints left behind on social networking sites, shopping websites, online forums and even in online games . Such software has helped corporations effectively target customers, and has similarly let law enforcement follow the activities of criminal or terror suspects. But whereas people have hesitations about brain scans, plenty willingly give up some privacy to sign up with Facebook or shop with online retailer Amazon.
Compared to the power of such behavior-deducing software , brain scans hardly seem necessary for many purposes yet they could still change the world one way or the other. Most surveyed experts suggested that brain scans might lead to innovative applications, change society's laws and views of criminal responsibility, and perhaps even help enhance the human brain's mental abilities.