Academic journal article Trames

Brain Reading and Mental Privacy

Academic journal article Trames

Brain Reading and Mental Privacy

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

Imagine you are applying for a job at an investment bank. You have the education, a hard-working demeanor, and relevant experience from your previous positions. After several rounds of interviews, you make it onto the shortlist and the company wants you to undergo extensive physical and psychological testing. Being relatively fit, you are healthy enough to pass the physical tests. Psychological tests likewise show that you are apt for the open position. For example, your brain imaging data show that you are unlikely to make financially rash decisions (Kuhnen and Knutson 2005)--which is good when you are responsible for handling other people's money. Yet, you do not get the job because the brain imaging results also revealed some information about you that you would not have wanted to share with the company. This could be, for example, information about your political preferences or how religious a person you are--things unrelated to your work performance that nevertheless make the person hiring new employees choose someone else.

Some argue that this gloomy picture could become reality (e.g. Eaton and Illes 2007, Farah et al. 2008, and Sententia 2004). Technologically it certainly could be: beyond just providing insights on how normal and abnormal neural mechanisms function and on neurological diseases, the majority of research deploying the use of brain imaging techniques is nowadays not confined to medicine. Examples include studies related to our political preferences (Amodio et al. 2007), how social hierarchy manifests itself in the brain activations (Zink et al. 2008), unconscious racial attitudes (Phelps et al. 2000), and lie detection (e.g. Kozel et al. 2005; Sip, Roepstorff and Frith 2008). Indeed, some studies show that brain activation differs between people who have just fallen in love, have been in love for some time, and those who are in love but have been recently been romantically rejected (Aron et al. 2005 and Fisher et al. 2006). None of these studies have much therapeutic or diagnostic value.

What these examples have in common is that they extend the use of brain imaging techniques to complex interpersonal phenomena that are present in our everyday life. The fact that neuroscience is no longer limited to mere medical research is also demonstrated by the prominence it receives in the increasing number of articles in the popular press, many of which un-cautiously suggest the idea of scientists being able to read our minds by the means of brain imaging techniques (see for example Nelson 2010).

As the examples above illustrated, these new possible uses for brain imaging raise the possibility of abusing one of our most fundamental rights: the right to privacy. The worry here is of course the threat of losing one's autonomy--being in a situation where we cannot control what information about ourselves is available to others can restrict the jobs we can get, the business we conduct, the way we are seen by strangers, and the way we relate to our friends and family. Such a situation might occur, for instance, when testing an applicant for certain jobs as in the example above, when enrolling in a health insurance program where we are willing to disclose some information but not everything, or even when being questioned by the police.

The worry about loss of privacy is intensified if this information does not relate to the work or insurance policy we are applying for or to the relevant police investigation (Fuchs 2006). That is, the revealed information might be something that does not have any legitimate function for the employers, insurance companies, and so forth but nevertheless could harm one's life. Our sexual preferences, for example, should not matter to our employers because it does not affect one's ability to adequately do one's job. Thus if we choose not to disclose it, they should not know it; especially because we might, as a result, be subject to a range of overt or covert discriminations. …

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