The Mind of James Donahue

Government Paranoia

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Our Final Bastion Of Freedom; Personal Thought


By James Donahue

May, 2005


Government now has machines that listen through the walls of your home to hear what you say and machines that see through your clothes revealing all at airports.


There are listening devices that scan personal telephone conversations from satellites in space, and Internet chat room chatter is being bugged all the time by paranoid government officials looking for terrorists and child pornography junkies.


The controversial Patriot Act permits authorities to tap your telephone conversations, bug your homes and offices, look at your bank records and even review the books you read from the library without a court order.


There is almost no area of your personal and once private life that the government can’t see, if it wants to.


Almost . . . but not quite all. They are working on it, but to date, science has not found a way to read your thoughts.


A recent story in tells about efforts by two researchers to use MRI scanning to separate thought patterns from various volunteers. The two, Yukiyasu Kamitani, at ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto, Japan, and Frank Tong at Princeton University in New Jersey, have discovered that certain signals can be used to determine which image of a selected assortment is being observed, but that is about as far as their experiments go.


The report was published in Nature Neuroscience.


Showing patterns of parallel lines in one of eight orientations to four volunteers, the researchers were able to recognize which image the subjects were looking at. But there was a problem. Individuals were found to use a different part of the brain to respond to the image.


In a separate study, also published in Nature Neuroscience, John-Dylan Haynes and Geraint Rees at University College, London, flashed two patterns in quick succession to six volunteers. They appeared for just 15 milliseconds, a speed too quick to be consciously perceived by the viewer. Yet MRI images of the brain indicated that the images were not only subconsciously perceived by the viewer, they were correctly identified.


The second study probed the part of the visual cortex that detects a visual stimulus, but does not perceive it. “It encodes what we don’t see,” said Haynes.


The London study suggests that it may be possible to use MRI scanning as a consciousness-meter, allowing doctors to assess whether a patient is consciously perceiving the outside environment, even when in an apparent comatose state.


But again, there is a problem. Yang Dan, a neurobiologist at University of California, Berkeley, cautions that there is little agreement as to what consciousness is.


Brain patterns appear to be unique to individuals, and using MRI scanning, or similar devices to read what is going on in the mind of a patient, criminal, or a random individual on the street would be almost impossible.

Whew. For a while yet, we still have the privacy of our thoughts.

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