70 Years After Orwell's "1984" Come the 'Thought Police?'

Mar 17, 2017

The year 1984 has come and gone, but what if George Orwell’s “Thought Police,” featured in that classic novel, are about to arrive?  A new study suggests that for the first time, it’s possible to determine what people are thinking, using MRI brain imaging technology. Robbie Harris has more . 

Credit Alison Fine

Scientists at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute have confirmed that brain imaging can identify a person’s mental state in the act of committing a crime. They did brain scans on 40 people who were told to think of a scenario where they might knowingly be breaking the law and another one where they weren’t sure if the action were criminal. Just think of that moment in the courtroom where the attorney defends a question by telling the judge, ‘…your honor, it goes to ‘state of mind.’

Read Montague, who is the Virginia Tech Carilion Vernon Mountcastle Research Professor and director of the research institute’s Human Neuroimaging Laboratory, headed the study.  It included experts from the legal system that opened his eyes about how guilt is determined and punishment decided upon. “They can put you in jail for 14 years, or decide to give you probation, for the very same crime depending on what the mental state was that you were in when you committed it.”

The study confirmed that certain patterns of blood flow detected by bran scans, can identify and determine whether someone is in a  knowing state of mind when a crime is being committed, or if the person is in a reckless state of mind, and therefore, potentially less responsible for his or her actions.

"Montague says the study  confirms, we "Could find a pattern of blood flow changes that correlates with a state of mind.”

But he says, M-R-I brain imaging data is not something that could be entered as evidence in court, at least not yet.

“This does not sanction anything like, 'OK come to the court room now and come over here and we do this scan and we do this fancy math on it. Then,OK we’re going to decide based on this scan that 2 years ago you were in a reckless mental state and because of that we’re going to give you sentence ‘A’ instead of sentence ‘B.’"

But now that his team has offered 'proof of concept' that brain mapping can determine what someone is thinking, it raises questions that go beyond pure scientific inquiry, as Montague is well aware.

“I mean, what if we got to a point where we decided we might be able to dig out information against your will? What are you going to allow yourself to do if you thought you had a method to detect weather somebody is going to do something bad?  That’s not just a science question is it?  What kind of civilization do we want to build for ourselves?”

Montague says George Orwell’s dystopian novel, “1984,” came up a lot when they were doing the research. Written in 1949, it describes a frightening world of the future where the ‘Thought Police’ arrest people just for thinking negative things about the state.  But fast-forward to the 21st century and we have a relatively new field known as Neurolaw, where brain-imaging technology meets the legal system.

And this new amalgam of creates all kinds of possible futures with questions that will need to be asked and answered.  Montague points to just one example,

“ You know, you have a right against unreasonable search and seizure.  Is your head also protected?”

The ten-year study on brain imaging and state of mind was conceived under the direction of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience at Vanderbilt University and carried out by researchers at Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and Yale University. Its findings were published this week this week in the online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,

You can read the full paper here.