Policy and Ethics

Cognitive Liberty: Comparison of Neurotechnology with other societal factors


Freedom. One of the most valued pillars of society. Most often we think about freedoms as freedom of speech or religion. One thing that we frequently take for advantage, though, is a concept known as cognitive liberty. Cognitive liberty is formally known as “the freedom of an individual to control his or her own mental processes, cognition, and consciousness” [1]. It is more commonly understood as a person’s ability to have private thoughts and complete control over their brain. Neurotechnology, or new technology created to influence and better brain function, can actually threaten our cognitive freedoms as a society. Some specific imaging technologies can access our thoughts and might have an effect on mental privacy and what can be publicized. However, in order to get the full picture about the threats of this technology, it is important to evaluate other factors in society that also limit our cognitive freedom. A prime example of this is government regulation of mind-altering drugs, which affect the function of your brain. Additionally, specific psychological marketing ploys are often used to affect how you perceive certain things or ideas. Currently, these are three main perils to our freedom of neurological devices, economic targeting, and government control. However, the benefits of brain technologies should be considered as well. These new inventions could help to treat and understand brain disorders better, especially those that haven’t been studied before. For some, these tools can dramatically increase life expectancy and improve quality of life. Therefore, based on the ever constant threats to cognitive liberty in society, the benefits of emerging neurotechnologies in the prevention and diagnosis of diseases outweighs their encroachment on human autonomy.

One of the most prominent types of technology that poses a threat to human freedom is MRI, which has generally been used to monitor brain structure and activity in a noninvasive way. However, a new type of MRI, fMRI, is a tool that provides information about neuron function in the brain which can then be used to infer cognitive activity. A computational algorithm compares known patterns of neural activation in a database to the brain activity of a subject and is then able to decode mental content such as thoughts, even though the signal is very rough. [2]. Another imaging method that can be used at a distance to possibly decode mental activity is NIRS (Near-infrared spectroscopy) but it only provides crude and unsuitable information in the brain. Invasive techniques such as DBS( Deep Brain Stimulation) and ECOG (electrocorticography) often require brain surgery and greatly influence cognition and emotion [3].

To truly understand the threats of neurotechnologies on human freedom, it is necessary to comprehend the other cognitive issues in today’s world. Our thoughts can be influenced indirectly through the new field of neuromarketing and economics. By understanding neurological functions and thought processes, marketers can more effectively create advertisements that manipulate the brain. Some psychological experiments have shown that any sort of subtle change in our environment can affect our decision making skills. Even though this is beneficial for companies to design better products and appeal to their target consumers, it also might be used to manipulate our thoughts and limit cognitive autonomy. Furthermore, much of the population is not even aware of this blatant threat to our neurological liberty.

Government placed regulations on what people can do with their brain is also a form of limiting autonomy. Mind-altering drugs such as LSD that can cause hallucinations are illegal in the United States. Technically, this prevents the individual from doing what they choose to themselves and altering their consciousness; therefore, bans such as this could be considered an infringement on cognitive liberty. However, this can be argued as a necessary step to prevent harms to both the individual and our collective society. It just proves that the total idea of mental freedom sometimes has to be sacrificed for health and safety.

All of the technologies mentioned earlier have numerous benefits in a practical setting. For example, fMRI and EEG can be used to measure the level of implicit racial biases in someone; these results could be used to create a threat assessment and prevent harm in the future. Neurotechnologies can also be applied to lie detection because EEG results have shown some promise relying on the P300 signal of the Guilty Knowledge Test to find character traits of honesty or dishonesty in people [4].

According to Popova, Shevchenko, and Tishchenko, the ethical implications of this are tricky because it is hard to say whether this information is reliable enough for a court of law or situations such as employment [5]. In a clinical setting, the latest neurological tools provide important information allowing doctors to diagnose diseases such as Alzheimer’s, which could previously only be diagnosed after death. These devices may also be able to predict future behaviors or functional brain problems, which could be helpful in preventing disease early in life.

Societally, people love to believe in the idea of free will and choosing what to do with their own brain and body. It is a widely held belief that no government or institution should be able to delve into the private lives of its citizens. This is a large part in why neurotechnologies such as fMRI are met with valid ethical concerns about their infringement on liberty. However, what many do not realize is that there are already an increasing number of factors that can subtly affect our cognitive processes and decision making skills. Government regulations and neuromarketing are both threats to total cognitive liberty. This can then be compared to the numerous benefits of upcoming neurotechnologies such as prevention of brain problems, diagnosis of previously unknown diseases, bias detection, and accurate lie detector tests. Weighing the benefits of these technologies with their threat to complete neurological freedom and looking at other threats in society, neurotechnologies should be used in clinical and research settings to create a better world.


[1] Roskies, Adina. February 10, 2016. Neuroethics. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2016/entries/neuroethics /. Accessed: June 28, 2020.

[2] Sententia, Wrye. May 12, 2004. Neuroethical considerations: cognitive liberty and converging technologies for improving human condition. Annals of New York Academy of Sciences. 221-228. Accessed: July 2, 2020

[3] Turner, Danielle. Sahakian, Barbara. March 13, 2006. Neuroethics of Cognitive Enhancement. BioSocieties. 113-123. Accessed: June 29, 2020.

[4] Langleben, Daniel. March 11, 2016. Polygraphy and Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging in Lie Detection: A Controlled Blind Comparison Using the Concealed Information Test. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. 77(10). Accessed: July 6, 2020.

[5] Popova, Olga. Shevchenko, Sergey. Tishchenko, Pavel. September 24, 2018. Neuroethics and Biopolitics of Cognitive Enhancement Biotechnologies. 96-108. Accessed: July 3, 2020.

About the Author

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Sonakshi-Bhallas-Profile-Picture.jpg

Sonakshi is a high school junior in Southern California with an avid interest in medicine, especially in neuroscience and global health. She is passionate about diseases affecting the brain and possible treatments. She also enjoys volunteering and attending various STEM competitions. When she is not studying, she loves traveling, hanging out with friends, and playing tennis.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *