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The mind transparent: Reading the human brain

A public lecture by Professor Nikolas Rose, Kings College London, delivered at ANU in August 2014.

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 – 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 – from autists to psychopaths – 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, Professor Rose explores the history of these developments, sketches their scientific and technical bases, and considers some of the epistemological and ontological mutations involved. He points to the ecological niches where they have – or have not – found a hospitable environment. He ends by asking whether a new expertise of the readable, knowable, transparent mind is taking shape, and if so, with what consequences.

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