Brainwave Technology & Cognitive Privacy

We Need Ground Rules on How to Keep Our Brain Data Private

By Kate Knibbs on at

There’s still no technology in the world that lets you listen in on someone’s thoughts. But scientific advances are making it easier than ever to measure, interpret, and reconstruct brain activity. Add that to a growing market of wearables with mind-reading sensors, and there are more ways to map our brainwaves than ever before.

With more opportunities to track brain activity comes more opportunities to mine that data. That’s not necessarily a bad thing outright, but it raises some privacy concerns: who owns brain data? fMRIs are already starting to get used as lie detectors, and it’s not unreasonable to expect police and other actors to use cognitive data in the future to gauge whether someone is innocent or guilty. It’s time to talk about how much control we should have over what’s in our brains.

At the World Science Festival, neuroethicist Paul Roote Wolp stressed how important it is right now to set up ground rules to protect cognitive privacy. Wolp believes that people should have absolute control over the information in our skulls, even with warrants for the contents of our brainwaves.

“I’m for an absolute right to cognitive privacy,” he says. “What does the right to privacy mean if it doesn’t mean the absolute right to the content of my own thoughts?”

It’s the early days, but technology that uses brainwaves is well on its way to becoming mainstream. Samsung has been prepping a mind-controlled tablet interface that uses an EEG hood since 2013, and there’s already a slew of devices that use neural-monitoring technology, from Emotiv’s high-tech research EEG headsets to Necomimi Brainwave Cat Ears.

When people use these technologies, the data footprints they leave behind will contain deeply personal information. EEG can be used as a unique personal identifier, for instance. With neuro-gaming and mind-controlled devices taking off, it’s time to have a discussion about the ways companies and governments can use the brain-based data these technologies generate. Sure, cat ears you move with your mind are whimsical, but if Ncomimi sells your brainwave data, that’s not so cute.

Aside from commercial uses, Wolp and others are concerned that government agencies and law enforcement will attempt to make cases against people based on what their brainwaves reveal. Right now, fMRI lie-detection is still in sketchy legal territory, but if the technology advances, there could be scenarios like the one described in the video, where a potential terrorist is “interrogated” by reading and analysing their brain waves.

Brainwave-reading technology is enormously valuable, and can help us understand how our brains work and how diseases of the brain work. It’s inevitable that we will continue developing these technologies. But it’s important not to forget that fighting for a reasonable expectation of privacy is necessary as we develop tools that could help people data-mine minds.



On the Brains of Artists

Artists brains are ‘structurally different’ claims new study

Limited study found more grey and white matter in artists’ brains connected to visual imagination and fine motor control

It’s a truism to say that artists see the world differently from the rest of us, but new research suggests that their brains are structurally different as well.

The small study, published in journal NeuroImage, looked at the brain scans of 21 art students and 23 non-artists using a scanning method known as voxel-based morphometry.

Comparisons between the two groups showed that the artist has more neural matter in the parts of their brain relating to visual imagery and fine motor control.

Although this is certainly a physical difference it does not mean that artists’ talents are innate. The balance between the influence of nature and nurture is never easy to divine, and the authors say that training and upbringing also plays a large role in ability.

The brain scans were accompanied by various drawing tasks, with the researchers finding that those who performed best at these tests routinely had more grey and white matter in the motor areas of the brain.

“The people who are better at drawing really seem to have more developed structures in regions of the brain that control for fine motor performance and what we call procedural memory,” lead author Rebecca Chamberlain from KU Leuven University, Belgium told the BBC.

The artists also showed significantly more grey matter in the part of the brain called the parietal lobe, a region involved with a range of activities that include the capacity to imagine, deconstruct and combine visual imagery.

Scientists also suggest that the study would help put to rest the idea that artists predominantly use the right side of their brain, as the study showed that increased grey and white matter was found equally distributed.

Despite this, previous research has suggested that there are some hard-wired structural differences between individuals’ brains, with some of the divides falling across gender lines.

A ‘pioneering study’ published in December last year found that male brains had more neural connections running front to back while female brains had more connections between the right and left hemisphere. Scientist suggested that this could explain why men are ‘better at reading maps’ and women are ‘better at remembering a conversation.



Here is a video:



The Closer to the Poles, the Larger the Brains

ScienceShot: Brains Grow at Earth’s Poles

by Daniel Strain on 26 July 2011, 7:02 PM
Credit: Eiluned Pearce

Underneath those horned helmets, Vikings may have sported big brains. Like other residents of the dark north, however, the Scandinavian pillagers would’ve needed the grandiose noggins to see, not to sack cities. Scientists have long known that polar days tend to be shorter and dimmer, on average, than their equatorial counterparts. Northern and southern peoples seem to compensate much like owls do, scientists report online today in theProceedings of the Royal Society B. The researchers examined 55 skulls dating back to the 1800s and taken from various parts of the world. They discovered that humans living along the tropics tend to have smaller eye sockets than people dwelling at higher and lower latitudes. Since bigger eyes absorb more light, large polar orbs could make up for the twilight conditions there. In fact, high- and low-latitude natives seem to see just as well in low light as tropical people do in bright light, according to the study. Cerebral size seems to grow by a few milliliters with increasing and decreasing latitude, probably because the brain’s visual centers expand as peepers widen.