Monday, October 10, 2011

Are our thoughts free?



Big Brother is watching us. I have discussed this theme already several times. Facebook wants to have our data for commercial reasons. State authorities want to have our data and follow what we do because we might be possible criminals. We find cameras everywhere for controlling our behaviour. But at least our thoughts are free, as a famous German song composed about 200 years ago says. The idea is much older, though. It had already been expressed by Cicero in Antiquity and then later, for instance, by the German mediaeval poet Walther von der Vogelweide. We still think so today, but how long yet?
The idea that our thoughts are free wants to express that we can think what we like because our thoughts are hidden for others. Even prison cannot limit them. And although our thoughts tend to be directed to what is socially and culturally acceptable and by what we have learned, everybody who wants to develop his or her own thoughts is free to do that.
It is to be hoped that thoughts will remain free in the sense that we can think what we want to think, but there are signs that the time is near that they’ll not be hidden any longer. Once I wrote a blog about a research that showed that a brain scanner can reveal our intentions better than we can. Now they can scan our brain also in order to see what we have done. At least the first steps have been taken. Researchers presented film fragments to three test subjects and while these persons were watching them their brains were scanned. Then the researchers begun to search video clips on YouTube, and with the help of the scanner data, a special computer program and some other computer work they succeeded to reconstruct the film fragments the tests subjects had seen (see http://gallantlab.org/).  Of course, these reconstructions were possible because the researchers knew already what film fragments they were looking for, but the next step will certainly be that they can also reconstruct what we have seen without such reference material. The whole procedure is still very complicated and time-consuming, but I guess that the time will come that it will be a matter of seconds and with a much higher quality of the results. One step more and it will be possible to “read” not only what we are doing at the moment that our brain is scanned but also to find back what we did in the past, so to read our memories. Then, the uses will be legion. It will be easier to solve crimes but also to repress unwanted behaviour (just have every citizen scanned his or her brain once a month).
All this sounds like science fiction, but wasn’t the myth of Icarus flying through the air also a kind of science fiction in Antiquity? And now we can fly, albeit it in a different way than Icarus did. Fiction often becomes fact, and it is to be expected that this will also occur for brain reading. Thoughts are not representations of what we do or have done, but they’ll certainly be influenced by the idea that the present representations in our brain and our memories can easily be read. And once these can be read, it is not unlikely that our thoughts can be read as well. Then they’ll no longer be free.

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