The mind transparent: Reading the human brain

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The human body was made legible long ago. But what of the human mind? Is it possible to ‘read’ the mind, for one human being to know what another is thinking or feeling, their beliefs and intentions? And if I can read your mind, how about others â€" could our authorities, in the criminal justice system or the security services?

Some developments in contemporary neuroscience suggest the answer to this question is ‘yes’. On the one hand, evolutionary neurobiologists and cognitive neuroscientists argue that humans, have an evolved capacity to ‘read the minds’ of others, and that this is a condition for human sociality; as a corollary the lack of this capacity in some humans â€" from autists to psychopaths â€" is argued to underlie their particular pathologies.

On the other, a range of novel technologies of brain imaging have been used to claim that specific mental states, and even specific thoughts, can be identified by characteristic patterns of brain activation; this has led some to propose their use in practices ranging from lie detection to the assessment of brain activity in persons in persistent vegetative states.

In this talk, I explore the history of these developments, sketch their scientific and technical bases, and consider some of the epistemological and ontological mutations involved. I point to the ecological niches where they have â€" or have not â€" found a hospitable environment. I end by asking whether a new expertise of the readable, knowable, transparent mind is taking shape, and if so, with what consequences.

Nikolas Rose is Professor of Sociology and Head of the Department of Social Science, Health and Medicine at King’s College, London. He was previously (2006-2011) Martin White Professor of Sociology and Director of the BIOS Centre for the Study of Bioscience, Biomedicine, Biotechnology and Society at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is also co-PI for the EPSRC funded Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation (CSynBI) and part of the Ethics and Society Division of the Human Brain Project. His recent work has focused on the drivers, nature and implications of developments in the life sciences and biotechnology and more generally on the relations between the social sciences and the life sciences. His most recent books are The Politics of Life Itself : Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century (Princeton, 2006); Governing The Present (with Peter Miller, Polity, 2008) and Neuro: the New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind (with Joelle Abi-Rached, Princeton, 2013). He is a longstanding member of the Editorial Board of Economy and Society, co-editor of BioSocieties: an interdisciplinary journal for social studies of the life sciences, and has been Chair of the European Neuroscience and Society Network, and a member of numerous advisory groups including the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.

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