Long the preserve of stage show performers and confidence tricksters, the ability to read minds has always fascinated humans. The possibility that our inner thoughts and feelings could be accessed by another is both thrilling and terrifying.
We are already at the point where some thoughts can be identified externally. So as neuroscientists decipher the workings of the brain, new questions are being raised about decoding memories and ascertaining intentions. This has obvious implications for criminal behaviour. What if neuro-evidence is invited into the courtroom?
At the moment the technology is in its infancy and has been primarily focused on aiding communication and movement for disabled people. But the fact that scientists can already identify some words that people are thinking is an extraordinary step.
Experts in the brain decoding field acknowledge that accurate interpretations of a person’s thoughts and memories remain a long way off but there is no doubt that technology in this area is advancing steadily.
If people’s inner worlds could be accessed it would have a profound effect. Who, if anyone, would we agree to share this world with? Under what circumstances would we countenance someone’s thoughts being accessed by force?
The courtroom is always confronting new technologies in the fight against crime. Fingerprinting, so-called lie detection technology and DNA profiling were all cutting edge when first presented in evidence. All have been used countless time to convict, and indeed acquit, suspects. And brain scans are already used in evidence, in one case to successfully argue that a suspect should be spared the death penalty.
But the courtroom setting presents many potential problems when it comes to reading people’s minds. Would coaching allow a suspect to fool the technology? Would reading minds be a form of self-incrimination, something many courts allow suspects to avoid doing? And what if someone mistakenly believes they may have committed a crime?
If your brain confesses but you insist on your innocence, who can the jury trust?