Cognitive Liberty

Of all the freedoms you have to lose, none is more fundamental than the freedom of thought. 

US Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo wrote:

“Freedom of thought… is the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every other form of freedom. With rare aberrations a pervasive recognition of this truth can be traced in our history, political and legal” (Palko v. Connecticut (1937) 302 U.S. 319, 326-27.)

Without freedom of thought, the First Amendment right to freedom of speech is moot, because you can only express what you can think. Constraining or censoring how a person thinks (cognitive censorship) is the most fundamental kind of censorship, and is contrary to some of our most cherished constitutional principles.

~ Richard Glenn Boire, Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics

Cognitive Liberty (CL) means the freedom to choose your state of mind and the right to mental privacy.  Some of the main elements of CL relate to 1) Privacy – your thoughts remain private until you choose to share them, 2) Autonomy – the individual must have free will to determine their state of mind, and 3) Choice – a person should have the right to alter their consciousness by what ever method they choose, as long as they are not harmful to others.  They should also have the choice to refuse drugs or treatments that may alter their consciousness. 

The Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics referenced above is a great resource for news and legal analysis of this subject.  Richard Glenn Boire is a lawyer who founded the CCLE.  When asked why CL is important he replied:

The right of a person to liberty, autonomy, and privacy over his or her own intellect is situated at the core of what it means to be a free person. This principle is what gives life to some of our most well-established and cherished rights. Today, as new drugs and other technologies are being developed for augmenting, monitoring, and manipulating mental processes, it is more important than ever to ensure that our legal system recognizes and protects cognitive liberty as a fundamental right. 

The War on Drugs is an obvious focus of Cognitive Liberty proponents and one of my biggest concerns. There’s much to say, but not tonight – so I’ll use this succinct quote from the late great Dr. Timothy Leary. 

Source: Erowid
    Two Commandments for the
    Molecular Age 

  • Thou shalt not alter the consciousness of thy fellow men.

  • Thou shalt not prevent thy fellow man from altering his or her own consciousness. 

Another main issue is the right to refuse drugs forced on you by doctors and/or courts.  Boire filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the 2003 Supreme Court case Sell v. US.  A dentist accused of Medicaid fraud was being compelled to take anti-psychotic medication so that he would be compenent to stand trial. He didn’t want to take the drug.  In their ruling, the Supreme Court affirmed the authority to administer anti-psychotic drugs to a criminal defendant for purposes of rendering him competent to stand trial.  However, strict criteria must be satisfied and it would be rare to find circumstances that warranted it.  In this particular case, the criteria were not met and so  Sell (the defendant) was allowed the right to refuse the unwanted medicine. 

Finally, as we are learning from Valtin’s essays, there is a very dark side to the issue of mind control – using methods of altered consciousness as a form of torture, interrogation or coercion.  See: Isolation, Sensory Deprivation & Sensory Overload and Still Photos from Edgewood Arsenal:  Human Experimentation Seen Up Close 

With advances in technology and psychopharmacology we are making great discoveries in how the brain works, but we are also creating new ways to read and control the mind. Here are a few examples:

Brain Fingerprinting

According to its developer, Brain Fingerprinting is designed to determine whether an individual recognizes specific information related to an event or activity by measuring electrical brain wave responses to words, phrases, or pictures presented on a computer screen.  The technique can be applied only in situations where investigators have a sufficient amount of specific information about an event or activity that would be known only to the perpetrator and investigator.  In this respect, Brain Fingerprinting is considered a type of Guilty Knowledge Test, where the “guilty” party is expected to react strongly to the relevant details of the event or activity. 

Proponents of this technology would like to use it for solving crimes and catching terrorists. 
Critics are opposed to compulsory Brain Fingerprinting because it violates the sanctity of the mind and the right to mental privacy. 


Researchers looking at ways of curing addiction are starting to develop the means to prevent drug abuse in the first place.  The idea is to use one drug to block the effects of another “high-producing” drug, like methadone does to heroin.  Simliar “antidotes” are being created for cocaine, marijuana, nicotine and alcohol.  That sounds great for someone who already suffers addiction and is voluntarily seeking treatment.  However, one could imagine that courts could also order this to be given to people convicted of possession or selling drugs.  Recipients of public assistance could also be treated with compulsory anti-drug drugs as a condition to receive benefits, e.g. food stamps and public housing.  There have also been proposals of anti-drug vaccinations that would be given to school children…the “Just Say No” shot.

Under the plan, doctors would immunise children at risk of becoming smokers or drug users with an injection. Childhood immunisation would provide adults with protection from the euphoria that is experienced by users, making drugs such as heroin and cocaine pointless to take.
(origninal source – The Independent (UK), July 25, 2004)

Um, but what if it stops you from feeling euphoria at all?  Is this really a good way to stop drug use in children or some kind of reefer madness?

In an article published in the Journal of Law and Health, Boire concluded: 

The development of pharmacotherapy drugs – like drug prohibition itself – is driven at least as much by politics, power, and profits than by genuine public health concerns.” (p.225)
(Neurocops: The Politics of Prohibition, J. Law and Health, Vol. 19, 215-257, 2004) [PDF]

Memory Management

This involves the use of pharmaceuticals to either improve memory, “smart pills”, or to erase memories that cause people to suffer PTSD.  Again, the research is being done with the best intentions. But there are situations where these drugs may be used coercively or without someone’s consent. 

For example, emergency room doctors giving memory erasing drugs to trauma victims to help blank out the scene of an accident or the army giving them to soldiers after battles.  What if you are a witness to a crime? Could the government compel you to take a memory-boosting drug to help you testify in court? 

In conclusion, from a scientist’s perspective, I have to say I recognize this research is important in revealing how the brain works and when it can be used for the common good.  As a cynical citizen who knows the lengths BushCo or any other fascist regime will go to wield power, I am afraid of the Thought Police. I fear we will lose control of our minds.


Skip to comment form

  1. I’m Comfortably Numb

    • pfiore8 on October 10, 2007 at 4:50 am

    free is an absolute that can never work as an absolute

    i’m glad i didn’t turn off before reading

    • snud on October 10, 2007 at 4:57 am

    is definitely a Thoughtcrime in the USA.

    And I definitely believe that Federal and State jursidiction ends where my skin begins as far as what I put into my body.

    The idiotic War on Drugs has been a (largely racist) assault on personal liberties of the worst kind and for the worst reasons.

    Is the rationale because, if I’m “too high” I can’t contribute to The State? And if that’s not it, what exactly is the rationale? So I won’t hurt myself?

    Nobody says that about drag racing or mountain climbing or jumping out of a plane with a parachute. And when somebody dies doing one of those things everyone always says “At least he died doing what he loved!”

    They never say that when a heroin addict OD’s, when it could very well be true.

  2. he agreed to go where the Feds wanted and helped incriminate many.

  3. Now that Ritalin patents have expired, a new designer drug is needed for the suburban kiddie  market.

    Play to the fear, then sell them the gear.

    That’s the Big Pharma Way.

    • fatdave on October 10, 2007 at 5:28 am

    This memory management is worrying. Surely whatever they give you cannot be so ultra selective as to remove only a highlighted traumatic experience? It must be something akin to removing a leg because of an ingrowing toenail.

    I have some memories which cause me stress from time to time. If they were looked at by a shrink or other competent person, they’d probably write PTSD/related or similar on the file. I don’t want anybody messing with them. They are part of me – the me I’ve become. If the pill marked Y is going to turn me back to the person I once was, it is a bad pill.

    I don’t want the ways I have of dealing successfully with stuff race-tuned either.

  4. A secret government can keep people from being able to think about important issues, by with-holding information.  No drugs needed.

    • RiaD on October 10, 2007 at 5:54 am

    I skimmed tonite…will read again with coffee…g’nite!

  5. Brave New World Revisited — went to the bookcase and pulled it, reading now….

    thanks for the poke.

  6. We assume that our thoughts drive what we think or say. It is surprising and non-obvious but in fact what we say forms what we think. Social Psychology, unlike psychology, is a hard science and its results should be heeded.

    To quote an old text book of mine:

    What we say to others affects what we believe. Sedikides (1990) asked participants to form impressions of a target but then to communicate positive, negative, or neutral information about the target to a third individual. Communication goals completely determined the information that was provided to the third individual, so that they overrode the participants own impressions. In fact, participants actually reformulated their own impressions in the direction of the positive, negative, or neutral impression they had been instructed to convey (Skowronski, J.J., Carlston, D.E., Mai, L., & Crawford, M.T.(1998). Spontaneous trait transference: Communicators take on the qualities they describe in others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 837-848)

    -Social Psychology, 12th ed, Taylor,Peplau,Sears, pg 44.

    So, you can see that any restriction on what can be said has severe consequences on freedom of thought. I am of the opinion that this phenomenon should always be upper most in mind when deciding whether to cut off discussion on blogs by a person or of a topic. This is a critical side of the issue that people are usually unaware of when engaging in discussion about tolerable limits of expression.

    This result should also give one pause before saying something negative about another person or group, as that statement becomes a more deeply embedded belief as a result, which can in turn causes even more negative statements in the future – a vicious circle of sorts.

    To make matters worse, from the same page as the above quote:

    When people communicate information about a target individual to a listener, they not only modify their own perceptions about the target but also systematically affect the impressions formed by the listener. Specifically, when we transmit information about another person, we typically omit information about mitigating circumstances that may have influenced the behavior and instead present the behavior as if it represented characteristics of the target individual. Our goal instead is to construct a simple, easily communicated story. The result is that the listeners may make more extreme positive or negative judgements of target individuals than the tellers do themselves.

    Thus setting up a negative feedback loop when the listener then goes on to expound negative attributes of the target group or individual. You can see here some of the fundamental underpinnings of the echo chambers we dislike so much in the right wing press and blogosphere. But these things are functional in all conscious humans and are not limited to authoritarian personality types.

    It’s no accident that free speech is a fundamental tenet of Americas founding fathers. But as you can see, both exercising it and limiting it are very dangerous.

    • Turkana on October 10, 2007 at 9:27 am

    that films often portray “mad scientists,” while it’s usually the politicians who abuse the science for nefarious ends.

    on a different but related note: i’ve long been fascinated that relativity theory and quantum mechanics- the philosophical implications of which, if assimilated into popular consciousness, could bust us out of the paradigm of selfishness and greed- are also responsible for inventions that could incinerate us all. 

  7. I have acquired and honed my talents for observing the Kafkaesque nation we have become.

    There was a sci-fi movie called “They Live” in which authority wrests control of the population by subliminals in everyday media.
    Could I get a job at cognitiveliberty?

    Just this morning Boston’s own channel seven featured a piece about a mother and son caught attempting to steal one of those donation containers for Mother Against Drunk Driving from a convienience store.  In true fascistic marketing techniques the “newscast” went on to explain how heinous a crime such a thing was.  How this mother could “loose” her son for encouraging such behavior and blah, blah, blah.  They even went so far as to “interview” a normal person spouting out the “how could anyone do that” meme.

    Almost every morning now “Nazinews” ruins my morning coffee.

  8. An Ohio jury convicted a man on child pornography charges for things he had written down in his private diary.  No actual child was involved.  Reprehensible things, but still…  Thoughtcrime, actualized.

Comments have been disabled.