Reading in the brain

Frederic Gilbert, PhD
Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada
Alexandre Wenger, PhD

University of Geneva, Switzerland (Spring 2010)

Labyrinth inside head graphicFrom graphic brain tumors to micro-neurological lesions, the increasing sophistication of neuroimaging technologies has greatly contributed to the accuracy of neuronal diagnostics. Concurrent with the development of these technologies, metaphors associated with the readability of the brain have evolved within the scientific literature. A cursory glance at recently published articles from Nature Journals reveals many references to the brain readability metaphor, from “developments in neuroimaging…including the reading of brain states”1 to “neurotechnologies such as brain reading.”2

With increasing interest in neurotechnology from diverse disciplines from medicine to pharmacology, the readability metaphor developed within the context of neuroimaging diagnostics has extended to include reading an individual’s thoughts. In a recent publication, an interviewed cognitive neuroscientist affirmed that, even if much work is involved, “the possibility of reading out a person’s thoughts does exist.”3Somehow, the purpose of cerebral imaging has shifted from a clinical diagnostic procedure to a tool for “reading the private intentions of a person”4 or “mind-reading.”5 Arguably, this shift does reflect increasingly accurate diagnoses of neuropathology and our ability to “decod[e] mental states from brain activity in humans.”6 Whether the metaphor discusses more traditional diagnostics or the less understood concept of mind-reading, the common factor that ties these articles together is the idea that it is possible to read the neural muddle with neuroimaging techniques. Indeed, idioms such as “neural signature” and “neural code” are now part of accepted and shared interdisciplinary terminologies (see Table 1).

While medical writing, as a heterogeneous language, must evolve and adapt to explain scientific advances within and outside of the medical community, scientific discussions of mind reading are questionable, even if this expression is the product of a long evolution. Does the readability metaphor accurately describe our current understanding of blood flow, metabolic tissue activity, and the orientation of hydrogen atoms and its relationship to thoughts? In other words, what can scientists genuinely glean from these brain images?

That the modern scientific community has embraced the possibility of brain reading through cerebral imaging makes an odd juxtaposition of an ancient, unsubstantiated medical tradition with current technologies that allow us to observe brain activity with increasing accuracy. To be fair, the metaphor of “reading the brain” as an explanation of neuroimaging is not without merit; it makes the description of these technologies accessible for a multiplicity of stakeholders who would otherwise have difficulty navigating the technical language that scientists frequently use. However, because brain reading is not a new concept developed by contemporary medical neuroimaging, this metaphorical language may limit the physician’s or neuroimagist’s ability to communicate the nature of their innovative observations and discoveries to the layperson.

Readability of the brain: a historical metaphor in medicine

Depending on the epoch and place, the readability of the body, the brain or the soul is a common metaphor used within medical or scientific literature. The concept of readability plays upon the grand unveiling of a hidden truth on how living beings work. It thus evokes the tradition of phrenology and the even more obscure “Books of Secrets,”7 the how-to books produced by alchemists from as early as the Middle Ages that promised to reveal hidden marvels in nature’s workings. Discussions of the metaphorical reading of the body likely began after the medieval period, but long before the time that readability became associated with phrenology, the legitimacy of which Maine de Biran8 contested . The idea of reading the body emerged during the Renaissance, when the view that the world could be deciphered and read like a book became prevalent.9 According to Galileo, the book of nature was written in the language of mathematics. It is a result of this very principle that scientists began the practice of dissecting corpses; the readability of the body thus departed from the realm of the metaphorical to the concrete.

The Walloon doctor Guillaume-Lambert Godart discussed explicitly in his detailed 1755 work on anatomy-physiology, evocatively entitled Physic of Human Soul, the possibility of brain reading. According to Godart – himself interested in the corporeal localization of the mind’s abilities – every sensation, as well as every idea, imprints a specific characteristic upon the fibers of the corpus callosum:

[These imprints] are definite physical modifications of the acting fiber […]. Every man’s brain contains the history of his life, interior as well as exterior, spelled out in real letters, but [these letters] belong to a specific language that nature uses to address us all. Thus, an anatomist, with either very good eyes or a perfect microscope capable of seeing these letters, and with an ability to comprehend their signification, might be able to read a dead person’s brain, the thoughts he or she might have had during his or her lifetime.10

Five years later, in his Memoire on the Brain, the famous Parisian doctor Antoine Le Camus explained that, with the help of his scalpel, he had searched for connections between the structure of the brain and the organization of thought. But, he noted, “I can only see a grayish mass, furrowed by smooth rays that converge into a very white mass. Unsatisfied, I therefore no longer trust my eyes only, as they are unable to let me see more organization within the Brain’s substance.”11 Feeling helpless, he opted for the available technological support of that epoch, which he hoped would enable him to fine-tune his reading, only to find that: “I have resorted to using the magnifying glass as well as the microscope; but still I have come no further, I cannot see any trace of fibers.”12

During the 18th century, attempts to “read” the brain translated into scalpel and cerebral dissection; today, reading the brain is attempted through different processes of cerebral imagery. Notwithstanding the technology gap, this challenge (across various applications in different eras) bears witness to similar scientific preoccupations. And although these texts mostly originate in medical circles, they have a place in how science in general views the brain. Eighteenth century theories that claimed that the brain was inscribed with an individual’s personal history clearly correlate to present-day attempts to read the brain through “neural signatures” or “neural codes,” which are correlation analyses of spatial patterns produced by functional magnetic resonance imaging responses. While the technology has changed, the current medical language is not so distant from that of our medical ancestors.

Obviously, the dynamic field of medical neuroimaging has allowed scientists to understand the function of the brain as never before. Nevertheless, in presenting these discoveries as an attempt to read the brain, scholars are shackling themselves to a medical and scientific history rooted in a belief that thoughts and brain function manifest themselves in physical structures, as well as the presumption that there are fixed, physical localizations of mental states. The scientific act of cerebral exploration involves mapping the brain; the reading metaphor has a repeated role in science’s understanding of this mapping process. This leads to the observation: that it is difficult to express – and hence conceptualize – in a completely innovative manner, how these neuroimaging results are nevertheless laden with originality.

Consequences involved with the choice of words

Since the first publications discussing “lateralized readiness potential” were issued in the ’80s, many brain reading metaphors have been reinforced and internationally accepted in academic literature. “Modern Mind-Brain Reading”13 technologies were believed to “serve as ‘windows’ on the mind and as ‘windows’ on the brain.” Decades later, the neuro-electro-detector technology has been replaced by neuroimaging design for medical purposes. Nevertheless, the readability metaphor does not appear to have been removed from the scientific literature; quite the opposite.

Choosing one’s words is important, as they behold a history, but also because their meaning carries forth a partially implicit value. The expression “to read the brain” is one that crystallizes relatively dissimilar expectations. Neuroscientific works, as well as popular works, both benefit from a certain type of confusion between a more restrictive meaning of “reading” to which actual neuroscientific possibilities correspond, and a broader meaning of “reading” to which representations and fantasies, usually related to the act of reading, correspond.

For the neuroscientists publishing their findings, the announcement that one can read something in the brain has a certain advertising appeal. For example, seminal results from Haynes et al. 2007 were published under “Reading Hidden Intentions in the Human Brain”14 and had a major impact in popular media. “Reading ‘x’ in the brain” suggests a transparency of the organ, whether now or in a very near future; it also brings about a rather spectacular dimension to the field of research, and carries forth a resounding impact that might not be brought about by less culturally-charged expressions.

From the point of view of the media, who popularize such research for a broader audience, the use of an easily understood, a priori expression is far more efficient than the description of some obscure neuroimaging terminology. To read ‘x’ in the brain does in fact play upon an ambiguous form of sensationalism,15 which makes praise of medical or scientific innovation, all the while underlining the somewhat frightening aspect of this potential violation of the realm of privacy of thought.16Indeed, if one were able to read one’s brain, does that not make us the equivalent of a book? Does that not reduce us to being no more than a thing to be read? From a logical point of view, if a machine were capable of reading us, then whatever is written in us may be accessed, permitting the fulfillment of such fantasies as the introduction of mind-reading lie detectors into courts of law.17

Reading a criminal’s brain would thus enable us to see and “know” everything; as if one would then be able to reach the very essence of that personality that committed the reprehensible act. Such an expectation would nonetheless be disappointing; as though the images may shimmer colorfully, they would remain devoid of meaning, not to mention impossible to understand, without the key enabling their interpretation.18,19,20 Such a fantasy, that science may dispossess us of our individuality, reducing us to a mere package of exportable information, is greatly developed in science fiction. This notion also finds itself in the unrealistic but popular idea that cerebral imagery may grant access to all that which makes up our singularity as human beings.

To read x in the brain would not only grant access to our most secret experiences, past and present, but to our future ones as well. Once again, nevertheless, it is mostly in popular works that the possibility of a “projective” cerebral reading is discussed with the most daring.

Difficulties related to the lack of terminology

New technology brings new ways of thinking about medicine. These new ways may be measured through locutions favoured in the medical literature to describe the novel technology. How medical writings evolve or keep faithful to the ideas and presumptions evoked by these expressions may well influence how other academic disciplines view and interpret the brain; as well as how the medical professionals and laymen might understand it. The words chosen to convey medical findings frequently convey meaning steeped in socio-cultural knowledge. Physicians and neuroscientists must often resort to the use of terms already laden with meaning, and often burdened by tradition, at the risk of importing connotations that do not tally with the sought-after objectivity of observation protocol. The example of the expression to read x in the brain shows how a given term may mean something quite different, depending on whether it is used by a group of experts or by a broader audience.

There is currently a discrepancy within the domain of cerebral imagery, between what is induced by words (reading x in the brain) and what is concretely possible in medicine. The explicit and exhaustive reading of an individual’s accumulated experience is still very far from being the case today. Quite the contrary, physicians are among the first to admit the extent of what remains unexplained in cerebral functioning. Medical diagnostics should not be reduced to a set of scans of the physical brain. Cerebral imagery technology also permits researchers to see the brain’s bioelectrical activity in relation to specific tasks performed by subjects in laboratories; and computer software can then recognize certain predefined paths of cerebral activity. But the necessary framing—protocol, tools, data transcription, etc., that such studies require remains quite separate from the common values related to the idea of reading. In terms of medicine, different metaphors are traditionally associated with different historical contexts. The core question of what will constitute a permanent metaphor for the concept of neuroimaging remains central to the history of medicine and medical writings on the topic.

Table 1

Illustration of how academic articles (not exhaustive) employed words related to the metaphor of the readability of the brain. These random examples were captured electronically by internet search engine within Nature Journal‘s Archive (Jan. 2006 – Apr. 2009). The locutions: “reading the brain,” “reading mind,” “neural code,” and “neural signature” were written in the advanced research motor.


Example of metaphor referring as “brain reading” Years of publication
“Neurotechnologies such as brain reading”21 2008
“Developments in neuroimaging (…) including the reading of brain states”22 2008
“brain-reading algorithms”23 2008
“it is possible to accurately decode a person’s conscious experience (…) such as ‘brain reading’”24 2006
Example of metaphor referring as “mind reading” Years of publication
“reading out a person’s thoughts does exist”25 2009
“such feats of rudimentary ‘mind-reading’”26 2008
“Mind-reading with a brain scan”27 2008
“the power of fMRI to read and predict human experience”28 2006
“some even liken it to mind-reading”29 2006
“reading the private intentions of a person”30 2006
Idiom # of articles using the idiom
Neural code 33
Neural signature 11


Thanks to Tim Krahn. The research for this paper was funded in part by a grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research; MOP 77670, Therapeutic Hopes and ethical concerns: Clinical research in the neurosciences and NNF 80045, States of Mind: Emerging Issues in Neuroethics.


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FREDERIC GILBERT, PhD is a postdoctoral fellow at Novel Tech Ethics, Department of Bioethics, Faculty of Medicine, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada. His current research interests concentrate on neuroethics, principally on neuropathology related to criminal behavior and on neurodegenerative disease associated with lack of responsibility. Moreover, Dr Gilbert has been working on questions connected to the impact of Medical Imaging on the scientific and popular cultures, the debate of equity in the allocation health care resources, and the discussion of the use of therapeutic stem cells for spinal cord injuries.

ALEXANDRE WENGER, PhD is lecturer in French literature, Department of French Literature, University of Geneva, and in the Medical Humanities Program, Bioethics Research and Teaching Unit, University of Geneva Medical School. He has published several books and articles on French literature, medical history and medical humanities. He is presently working on the interface between literature and medicine since the 18th century and on narrative-based approaches to contemporary medicine (namely in the clinical field of oncogenetics). He is a member of the Committee of the Swiss Society for Bioethics.