Category Archives: fMRI

A few deception tweets from recent days

  • Insurance “claim fraudsters think too much”. Some great Portsmouth Uni research covered by Irish Independent
  • “If You Want to Catch a Liar, Make Him Draw” David DiSalvo @Neuronarrative on more great Portsmouth Uni research
  • fMRI scans of people with schizophrenia show they have same functional anatomical distinction between truth telling & deception as others via @Forpsych
  • In press: Promising to tell truth makes 8- 16 year-olds more honest (but lectures on morality don’t). Beh Sciences & Law

Quick deception links for the last few weeks

Gah, Twitter update widget broken. Here are the deception-relevant tweets from the last few weeks:

Polygraph and similar:

  • Detecting concealed information w/ reaction times: Validity & comparison w/ polygraph App Cog Psych 24(7)
  • Important (rare) study on polygraph w/ UK sex offenders: leads to more admissions; case mgrs perceive increased risk

fMRI and other brain scanning:

  • If Brain Scans Really Detected Deception, Who Would Volunteer to be Scanned? J Forensic Sci
  • FMRI & deception: “The production and detection of deception in an interactive game” in Neuropsychologia
  • In the free access PLoS1: fMRI study indicates neural activity associated with deception is valence-related. PLoS One 5(8).

Verbal cues:

  • Distinguishing truthful from invented accounts using reality monitoring criteria –
  • Detecting Deceptive Discussions in Conference Calls. Linguistic analysis method 50-65% accuracy. SSRN via
  • Effect of suspicion & liars’ strategies on reality monitoring Gnisci, Caso & Vrij in App Cog Psy 24:762–773

Applied contexts:

  • A new Canadian study on why sex offenders confess during police interrogation (no polygraph necessary)
  • Can fabricated evidence induce false eyewitness testimony? App Cog Psych 24(7) Free access
  • In press, B J Soc Psy Cues to deception in context. Apparently ‘context’ = ‘Jeremy Kyle Show’. Can’t wait for the paper!
  • Can people successfully feign high levels of interrogative suggestibility & compliance when given instructions to malinger?

Kids fibbing:

  • Eliciting cues to children’s deception via strategic disclosure of evidence App Cog Psych 24(7)
  • Perceptions about memory reliability and honesty for children of 3 to 18 years old –

And some other links of interest:

fMRI Lie Detection enters the courtroom

UPDATE!  Request to admit No Lie MRI report in California case is withdrawn Stanford Center for Law & the Biosciences Blog, 25 March 09

So depressing. Here’s the coverage so far:

Related links:

Research round-up 2: New technologies and deception detection

Part two of the Deception Blog round-up of “all those articles I haven’t had a chance to blog about”. Part one was about catching liars via non-mechanical techniques. This post covers articles and discussion about new technologies to detect deception, including fMRI and measurement of Event-Related Potentials.

fMRI and deception: discussion on the journal pages

It’s been quite a year for advances in neuroscience and deception detection, so much so that in a recent paper in of the American Academy of Psychiatry & Law, Daniel Langleben and Frank Dattilio suggested that a new discipline of “forensic MRI” was emerging. One interesting exchange appeared recently in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry & Law:

…The new approach promises significantly greater accuracy than the conventional polygraph—at least under carefully controlled laboratory conditions. But would it work in the real world? Despite some significant concerns about validity and reliability, fMRI lie detection may in fact be appropriate for certain applications. This new ability to peer inside someone’s head raises significant questions of ethics. Commentators have already begun to weigh in on many of these questions. A wider dialogue within the medical, neuroscientific, and legal communities would be optimal in promoting the responsible use of this technology and preventing abuses.

…The present article concludes that the use of functional imaging to discriminate truth from lies does not meet the Daubert criteria for courtroom testimony.

…we update and interpret the data described by Simpson, from the points of view of an experimental scientist and a forensic clinician. We conclude that the current research funding and literature are prematurely skewed toward discussion of existing findings, rather than generation of new fMRI data on deception and related topics such as mind-reading, consciousness, morality, and criminal responsibility. We propose that further progress in brain imaging research may foster the emergence of a new discipline of forensic MRI.

Earlier this year Kamila Sip and colleagues challenged proponents of neuroimaging for deception detection to take more account of the real world context in which deception occurs, which led to a robust defence from John-Dylan Haynes and an equally robust rebuttal from Sip et al. It all happened in the pages of Trends in Cognitive Sciences:

With the increasing interest in the neuroimaging of deception and its commercial application, there is a need to pay more attention to methodology. The weakness of studying deception in an experimental setting has been discussed intensively for over half a century. However, even though much effort has been put into their development, paradigms are still inadequate. The problems that bedevilled the old technology have not been eliminated by the new. Advances will only be possible if experiments are designed that take account of the intentions of the subject and the context in which these occur.

In their recent article, Sip and colleagues raise several criticisms that question whether neuroimaging is suitable for lie detection. Here, two of their points are critically discussed. First, contrary to the view of Sip et al., the fact that brain regions involved in deception are also involved in other cognitive processes is not a problem for classification-based detection of deception. Second, I disagree with their proposition that the development of lie-detection requires enriched experimental deception scenarios. Instead, I propose a data-driven perspective whereby powerful statistical techniques are applied to data obtained in real-world scenarios.

…Valid experimental paradigms for eliciting deception are still required, and such paradigms will be particularly difficult to apply in real-life settings… We agree with Haynes, however, that there are important ethical issues at stake for researchers in this field. In our opinion, one of the most important of these is careful consideration of how results derived from highly controlled laboratory settings compare with those obtained from real-life scenarios, and if and when imaging technology should be transferred from the laboratory to the judicial system.

fMRI and deception: new research findings

Of course discussion is worth nothing if you don’t have research results to discuss. Shawn Christ and colleagues delved deeper into to the cognitive processes associated with deception:

Previous neuroimaging studies have implicated the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and nearby brain regions in deception. This is consistent with the hypothesis that lying involves the executive control system….Our findings support the notion that executive control processes, particularly working memory, and their associated neural substrates play an integral role in deception. This work provides a foundation for future research on the neurocognitive basis of deception.

Meanwhile, two groups of researchers reported that fMRI techniques can differentiate between mistakes and false memories vs deliberate deception, with Tatia Lee and colleagues showing that in the case of feigning memory impairment, deception “is not only more cognitively demanding than making unintentional errors but also utilizes different cognitive processes”:

fMRI and deception in the blogosphere

Commentary and discussion of fMRI was not limited to the pages of scholarly journals, however. A terrific post by Vaughan over at Mind Hacks on the limitations of fMRI studies zipped around the blogosphere (and rightly so) and is well worth a read if you are interested in becoming a more critical consumer of fMRI deception detection studies (see also Neurophilosophy’s post MRI: What is it good for? ).

There’s a detailed write-up by Hank Greely of the University of Akron Law School’s conference on Law and Neuroscience held in September, which covers the science, the practicalities and the ethics of using neuroscience in forensic contexts (see also his summary of a presentation at an earlier conference on ‘neurolaw’). Judges too, are “waking up to the potential misuse of brain-scanning technologies” with a recent judges’ summit in the US to “discuss protecting courts from junk neuroscience”, reports New Scientist .

Nevertheless, purveyors of MRI lie-detection technology continue to push their wares. For instance, the Antipolygraph Blog picked up a radio discussion on commercial fMRI-based lie detection in June (the audio download is still available as an mp3 download).

ERP and deception: the controversial BEOS test

Earlier this year I and many others blogged about the disturbing use of brain scanning in a recent murder trial in India. The technique is known as the Brain Electrical Oscillations Signature test and is based on measuring Event-Related Potentials (electrical activity across the brain). Neurologica blog and Neuroethics and Law have a write-ups and links for those who wish to know more.

Neuroethics and Law blog links to a pdf of the judge’s opinion in the case, where pages 58-64 include a summary of the judge’s understanding of the BEOS procedure and what it ‘revealed’ in this case. Most disturbing is the apparent certainty of the judge that the tests were appropriate, scientifically robust and applied correctly by “Sunny Joseph who is working as Assistant Chemical Analyser in Forensic Science Laboratory, Mumbai” (p.55-56):

…competency of this witness to conduct the Test is not seriously challenged. His evidence also reveals that he was working as Clinical Psychologist in National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences at Bangalore and he has experience in the field of Neuro psychology since last 6 years and in forensic technique since last 1½ years. He has himself conducted approximately 15 Polygraph Tests and has been associated with almost 100 Polygraph Tests. He has conducted 16 BEOS Tests and has been associated in conducting of about 12 Neuro Psychology Tests. Therefore his expertise in my opinion, can in no way be challenged and nothing is brought on record in his cross examination to show that the Tests conducted were not proper and requisite procedure was not followed (p.62).

On a happier note, my hot tip for the New Year is to keep your eye on Social Neuroscience – there are several articles on neural correlates of deception in press there which they are saving up for a special issue in 2009.

More soon – part 3 covers the 2008 flurry of interest in deception and magic!

NPR on lie detection

Hat tip to (a great blog associated with the American Journal of Bioethics):

This past week NPR’s Morning Edition carried a three-part series about lie detection reported by Dina Temple-Raston. (The segments are posted as both audio and text, so they’re easy to scan if you can’t listen.) The series covers the questionable accuracy of polygraphs, the emerging field of lie detection by fMRI, and the examination of facial “micro expressions” for hints of lies.

Head over to for some commentary, or go straight to the NPR site for more details.

Can lie detectors be trusted?

Detailed commentary from Patrick Barkham in the Guardian (18 Sept), exploring the use of ‘lie detecting’ machines in the UK. He covers the use of voice stress analysis in benefit offices and insurance companies, and polygraphy for sex offenders. Interesting stuff, and well worth reading in full over on the Guardian site. Here’s a flavour:

[Harrow] council prefers the phrase “voice risk analysis” and Capita calls its combination of software, special scripts and training for handlers the “Advanced Validation Solution”. Just don’t say it’s a lie detector. “Please don’t call it that. We’re not happy with that. It’s an assessment,” says Fabio Esposito, Harrow’s assistant benefit manager.

… Voice stress analysis systems have been used for more than five years in the British insurance industry but have yet to really catch on, according to the Association of British Insurers. There was an initial flurry of publicity when motor insurance companies introduced the technology in 2001 but it is still “the exception rather than the norm,” says Malcolm Tarling of the ABI. “Not many companies use it and those that do use it in very controlled circumstances. They never use the results of a voice risk analysis alone because the technology is not infallible.”

… Next year, in a pilot study, the government will introduce a mandatory polygraph for convicted sex offenders in three regions. … Professor Don Grubin, a forensic psychiatrist at Newcastle University… admits he was initially sceptical but argues that polygraphs are a useful tool. “We were less concerned about accuracy per se than with the disclosures and the changes in behaviour it encourages these guys to make,” he says. “It should not be seen as a lie detector but as a truth facilitator. What you find is you get markedly increased disclosures. You don’t get the full story but you get more than you had.”

…critics argue that most kinds of lie-detector studies are lab tests, which can never replicate the high stakes of real lies and tend to test technology on healthy individuals (usually students) of above-average intelligence. Children, criminals, the psychotic, the stupid and even those not speaking in their first language (a common issue with benefit claimants) are rarely involved in studies.

More fMRI stuff and nonsense

ABC News (30 Aug) is the latest media outlet to get on the MRI Lie-Detection bandwagon. “See a Lie Inside the Brain – Researchers Detect the Truth and Find Lies With an FMRI” is their breathless headline. How exciting! But Don Q Blogger points out it’s mostly uncritical puff for commercial companies offering fMRI lie detection tests

Meanwhile, Mind Hacks, Boing Boing and The Neurocritic all weigh in on a recent New York Times article on the growing commercialisation of fMRI technology for lie detection, pain control and a host of other purposes.

UPDATE (5 Sept): further commentary on the ABC story over at Cognitive Daily and The Neurocritic.

Cross-Examining The Brain

Hat tip to Prof Peter Tillers for pointing us to a paper from Charles Keckler, George Mason University School of Law, on admissibility in court of neuroimaging evidence of deception. Here’s the abstract:

The last decade has seen remarkable process in understanding ongoing psychological processes at the neurobiological level, progress that has been driven technologically by the spread of functional neuroimaging devices, especially magnetic resonance imaging, that have become the research tools of a theoretically sophisticated cognitive neuroscience. As this research turns to specification of the mental processes involved in interpersonal deception, the potential evidentiary use of material produced by devices for detecting deception, long stymied by the conceptual and legal limitations of the polygraph, must be re-examined.

Although studies in this area are preliminary, and I conclude they have not yet satisfied the foundational requirements for the admissibility of scientific evidence, the potential for use – particularly as a devastating impeachment threat to encourage factual veracity – is a real one that the legal profession should seek to foster through structuring the correct incentives and rules for admissibility. In particular, neuroscience has articulated basic memory processes to a sufficient degree that contemporaneously neuroimaged witnesses would be unable to feign ignorance of a familiar item (or to claim knowledge of something unfamiliar). The brain implementation of actual lies, and deceit more generally, is of greater complexity and variability. Nevertheless, the research project to elucidate them is conceptually sound, and the law cannot afford to stand apart from what may ultimately constitute profound progress in a fundamental problem of adjudication.


Can brain scans uncover lies?

brainscan2Wow. Mind Hacks is right. A great article from the New Yorker on fMRI and deception detection. Here’s a little snippet but as the article is freely available online you should really head on over there and read the whole thing:

To date, there have been only a dozen or so peer-reviewed studies that attempt to catch lies with fMRI technology, and most of them involved fewer than twenty people. Nevertheless, the idea has inspired a torrent of media attention, because scientific studies involving brain scans dazzle people, and because mind reading by machine is a beloved science-fiction trope, revived most recently in movies like “Minority Report” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Many journalistic accounts of the new technology—accompanied by colorful bitmapped images of the brain in action—resemble science fiction themselves.

And later, commenting on University of Pennsylvania psychiatrist Daniel Langleben’s studies that kicked off the current fMRI-to-detect-deception craze:

Nearly all the volunteers for Langleben’s studies were Penn students or members of the academic community. There were no sociopaths or psychopaths; no one on antidepressants or other psychiatric medication; no one addicted to alcohol or drugs; no one with a criminal record; no one mentally retarded. These allegedly seminal studies look exclusively at unproblematic, intelligent people who were instructed to lie about trivial matters in which they had little stake. An incentive of twenty dollars can hardly be compared with, say, your freedom, reputation, children, or marriage—any or all of which might be at risk in an actual lie-detection scenario.


Photo credit: killermonkeys, Creative Commons License

Lie lab on Channel 4

I’ve been out of the country for the last couple of weeks and missed the start of what looks to be an interesting series from UK’s Channel 4 on lie detection. Luckily the trusty Mind Hacks is on hand to pick it up!

Lie Lab is a three-part TV series where they use the not-very-accurate brain scan lie detection method to test high profile people who have been accused of lying.

Read all about it on the Mind Hacks post here, or on the Channel 4 website here.

If, like me, you’ve missed the start of the series, UK/Eire viewers can use the Channel 4 ‘on demand’ feature to catch up over the internet.

Watching the Brain Lie: Can fMRI replace the polygraph?

This is the question asked in the May 2007 issue of The Scientist, which discusses the recent commercialisation of fMRI for lie detection, and concludes with a good summary of the persistent problems using this technology in forensic contexts:

[…] in reality, a nonconsensual testtaker need only move his or her head slightly to render the results useless. And there are other challenges. For one, individuals with psychopathologies or drug use (overrepresented in the criminal defendant population) may have very different brain responses to lying, says [New York University Psychology prof Elizabeth] Phelps. They might lack the sense of conflict or guilt used to detect lying in other individuals. […]

If a person actually believes an untruth, it’s not clear if a machine could ever identify it as such. Researchers including Phelps are still debating whether the brain can distinguish true from false memory in the first place. […]

Jed Rakoff, US District Judge for the Southern District of New York, says he doubts that fMRI tests will meet the courtroom standards for scientific evidence (reliability and acceptance within the scientific community) anytime in the near future, or that the limited information they provide will have much impact on the stand.

[…] According to Rakoff, the best way to get at the truth in the courtroom is still “plain old cross-examination.” And in the national security sphere, there’s “much more to detecting spies than the perfect gadget,” [Marcus Raichle, professor at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine] agrees. “There’s some plain old-fashioned footwork that needs to be done.”

See also:

  • Hat tip to Mind Hacks (11 May), which has a detailed commentary on the article.

Is commercial lie detection set to go?

… asks Ronald Bailey on Reason Online (23 Feb):

[…] Deception arises in our brains. The utility of finding a way to look under the hood directly for the source of deception is undeniable. Not surprisingly, a number of researchers have been trying to find correlates in the brain for truth and lies. […] Now a couple of American companies are claiming to be able to do just that. No Lie MRI in Tarzana, Calif., and Cephos Corporation in Pepperell, Mass. use fMRI scanning to uncover deception. No Lie MRI asserts that its technology, “represents the first and only direct measure of truth verification and lie detection in human history.” Both companies say that their technology can distinguish lies from truth with an accuracy rate of 90 percent.

[…] What evidence does No Lie MRI and Cephos Corporation offer for their assertion of 90 percent accuracy in detecting lies? A look at the studies cited on No Lie MRI’s website is not reassuring. The company links to one done using 26 right-handed male undergraduates; to another with 22 right-handed male undergraduates; and to a third one with 23 right-handed participants (11 men and 12 women).

Cephos links to just three fMRI studies, one using a total of 61 subjects (29 male and 32 female of whom 52 were right-handed); another using 14 right-handed adults who did not smoke or drink coffee; and a third one that tested 8 men. So adding up the studies cited by these two companies, we get a total of 154 subjects whose brains have been probed for lying in controlled laboratory settings.

[…] Right now its accuracy has not yet been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Or as Stanford law professor Hank Greeley succinctly put it: “I want proof before this gets used, and proof is not three studies of 40 college students lying about whether or not they are holding the three of spades.”

fMRI and deception: report on a recent symposium

From Science Daily, 19 Feb, a report on the recent symposium Is There Science Underlying Truth Detection? sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. It does a good job at summarising some of the practical, legal, ethical and theoretical issues surrounding the use of fMRI for deception detection. Here’s an excerpt, but it’s worth reading in full:

The symposium explored whether functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which images brain regions at work, can detect lying. “There are some bold claims regarding the potential to use functional MRI to detect deception, so it’s important to learn what is known about the science,” said Emilio Bizzi, president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an investigator at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research and one of the organizers of the event.

[…] In 2005, two separate teams of researchers announced that their algorithms had been able to reliably identify “neural signatures” that indicated when a subject was lying. But the research, conducted on only a handful of subjects, was flawed, Kanwisher said. Subjects were asked to lie about whether they were holding a certain card or whether they had “stolen” certain items. These are not actually lies, she pointed out, because subjects were asked to make such statements. “What does this have to do with real-world lie detection? Making a false response when instructed isn’t a lie.

[…] In addition, the subject may not want to cooperate. “FMRI results are garbage if the subject is moving even a little bit. A subject can completely mess up the data by moving his tongue in his mouth or performing mental arithmetic,” she said. Testing also poses problems. To ensure accurate results, fMRIs would have to be tested on a wide variety of people, some guilty and some innocent, and they would need to believe that the data would have real consequences on their lives. The work would need to published in peer-reviewed journals and replicated without conflicts of interest.

In short, Kaniwsher said, “There’s no compelling evidence fMRIs will work for lie detection in the real world.”

Revealing secret intentions in the brain

Press release from the Max Planck Institute (8 Feb):

Our secret intentions remain concealed until we put them into action -so we believe. Now researchers have been able to decode these secret intentions from patterns of their brain activity. They let subjects freely and covertly choose between two possible tasks – to either add or subtract two numbers. They were then asked to hold in mind their intention for a while until the relevant numbers were presented on a screen. The researchers were able to recognize the subjects intentions with 70% accuracy based alone on their brain activity – even before the participants had seen the numbers and had started to perform the calculation.

[…] The work of Haynes and his colleagues goes far beyond simply confirming previous theories. It has never before been possible to read out of brain activity how a person has decided to act in the future.

This press release prompted a piece in the UK Guardian (9 Feb) that explored both the research and the possible applications of this knowledge:

The latest work reveals the dramatic pace at which neuroscience is progressing, prompting the researchers to call for an urgent debate into the ethical issues surrounding future uses for the technology. If brain-reading can be refined, it could quickly be adopted to assist interrogations of criminals and terrorists, and even usher in a “Minority Report” era (as portrayed in the Steven Spielberg science fiction film of that name), where judgments are handed down before the law is broken on the strength of an incriminating brain scan.”These techniques are emerging and we need an ethical debate about the implications, so that one day we’re not surprised and overwhelmed and caught on the wrong foot by what they can do. These things are going to come to us in the next few years and we should really be prepared,” Professor Haynes told the Guardian.


  • John-Dylan Haynes, Katsuyuki Sakai, Geraint Rees, Sam Gilbert, Chris Frith, Dick Passingham (2007). Reading hidden intentions in the human brain. Current Biology, February 20th, 2007 (online: February 8th). PDF and HTML full text freely available (as of 9 Feb 07)

Can a brain scan prove you’re telling the truth?

The latest issue of New Scientist (issue 2590, 10 Feb 07) has an article on how “the apparent emergence of an fMRI truth-telling industry in the US has come as something of a surprise”. Sadly, it’s behind a paywall. It begins:

The trouble began in 2003 when a fire gutted Harvey Nathan’s deli in Charleston, South Carolina. In the aftermath, Nathan fought off police charges of arson, but his insurers’ lingering doubts over his innocence have tied up a payout that could exceed $200,000.

Which is why, last December, Nathan travelled across the US and paid $1500 to have his brain scanned. “We provide a service for people who need to prove they are telling the truth,” says Joel Huizenga, a biologist turned entrepreneur and CEO of No Lie MRI of Tarzana, California. In what amounted to the world’s first commercial lie-detection test using function magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), technicians at No Lie mapped blood flow within Nathan’s brain while he answered a battery of questions about the deli fire and compared the results to control tests during which Nathan was asked to lie.

Symposium: Is There Science Underlying Truth Detection?

If you’re in Cambridge MA next week you might be interested in a symposium on brain imaging and deception detection, to be held at the American Academy of Arts & Science on 2 February, from 2-5pm:

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, and Harvard University are holding a symposium on the science, law, and ethics of using brain imaging technology to detect deception. The program will focus on the status of the science behind detecting deception using fMRI. Presenters will also consider the legal, ethical, and public policy implications of using brain imaging for lie detection.

The symposium is free, but advanced registration is required (more details here).

The scope of No Lie MRI

Neuroethics and Law Blog (8 Nov) highlights out recent amendments to the No Lie MRI website:

No Lie MRI, which currently offers an fMRI-based “truth verification/lie detection” product […] recently amended its website to offer its services to: (1) individuals for “risk reduction in dating, trust issues in interpersonal relationships, and issues concerning the underlying topics of sex, power, and money”; (2) employers as a substitute for drug screenings, resume validation, and security background checks […] and (3) insurance companies for diminishing insurance fraud and lowering insurance premiums

No Lie MRI’s spiffy new front page features pretty pictures of brain scans to add a veneer of scientific respectability to their claims. Scariest of all, the company tells us that it “is presently working to have its testing allowed as evidence in U.S. and State courts“.

See also:

Brain on Fire

In the wake of news that NoLieMRI has started conducting commerical lie tests, the Washington Post (30 October), reports on brain scanning and lie detection. It starts with a detailed description of what it is like to take an MRI lie test:

You’re chambered into this dimly lit tunnel of truth like a shell into a shotgun. First you are instructed to twist plugs far into your ears. Then you lie on a gurney narrower than a stretcher. A woman in a lab coat slides a helmet over your head. It is not really like a Hannibal Lecter mask, although the researchers like to make that joke. Your nose barely clears the equipment, your eyes can only look up, and your head is cradled to discourage movement.

Into your hands the researchers place a box with two buttons. The left one, when punched, signifies a “yes” response to questions. The right one means “no.” When they slide you into the bore, it is barely wide enough for your shoulders. To your hip they’ve taped a bulb that you are supposed to squeeze if you have a panic attack, because there is the possibility that no one will hear you scream — when the machine goes to work, it pounds like a high-frequency jackhammer, except when it shrieks like the klaxon on a submarine when somebody shouts “Dive! Dive!”

But there are problems:

This commercialization is derided by many researchers as premature. It is not yet clear, they say, how well this technology identifies different kinds of lies, or how well it works across a great array of people, or how well it stands up to countermeasures.

[…] “It is a very deep problem,” [Antonio Damasio, the neurologist who is director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California] says. “I don’t do any work on lie detection. But you are in essence having to detect a discrepancy between an overt behavior and an internal representation. It is complicated enough to find out what is going on when the idea and the behavior are consistent.”

[…] Damasio and other skeptics are concerned that [commerical companies are] engaging in nothing more than “neo-phrenology.” Phrenology is the discredited 19th-century idea that you can figure out a person’s character by examining the bumps on his head.

“It’s not a question of putting someone in a scanner and see what lights up,” says Damasio. “The idea of going immediately to the commercialization of a product identifying different mental states is premature.”

Great article, well worth a read.

“We are going to the region of the brain which is actually formulating a [deceptive] response”

ScienCentral (12 Sept) rehashes earlier coverage (see here and here) to highlight the work of Temple University faculty Scott Faro and Feroze Mohamed : (12 Sept)

[…] rather than focusing on the potential end-result of lying, [Faro and Mohamed] are developing a way to detect deception by looking directly at people’s brain activity using MRI brain scanners. “We are going to the source, we are going to the region of the brain which is actually formulating a response,” says Mohamed, the MRI physicist on the team.

[…] In this preliminary study, the researchers wanted to see whether brain scans can even pick up a significant difference between brain activity during lying versus when telling the truth. The researchers had six of eleven volunteers fire a gun, then lie and say they didn’t. The other five could truthfully say they didn’t fire the gun. All the volunteers were then given functional MRI and polygraph tests during which they denied having fired the gun.

As they reported in The Journal of Radiology, the brain scans revealed unique areas that only lit up during lying. However, the researchers point out that there is never going to be one telltale spot in the brain that automatically indicates a lie. “There really is no one lying center,” says Faro. “There are multiple areas in the brain that activate because there’s a lot of processes that have to take place.”

[..] In fact, Faro hopes that this technology will usher in a new era of accuracy in lie detection, which could be applied in areas from preventing insurance fraud to freeing falsely-accused prisoners.

Reference: Feroze B. Mohamed, Scott H. Faro, Nathan J. Gordon, Steven M. Platek, Harris Ahmad, and J. Michael Williams (2006). Brain Mapping of Deception and Truth Telling about an Ecologically Valid Situation: Functional MR Imaging and Polygraph Investigation—Initial Experience . Radiology Volume 238, Issue 2

Time Magazine wonders how to spot a liar

A lengthy piece in last week’s Time Magazine (20 August) rakes over familiar ground:

[…] In the post-9/11 world, where anyone with a boarding pass and a piece of carry-on is a potential menace, the need is greater than ever for law enforcement’s most elusive dream: a simple technique that can expose a liar as dependably as a blood test can identify DNA or a Breathalyzer can nail a drunk. Quietly over the past five years, Department of Defense agencies and the Department of Homeland Security have dramatically stepped up the hunt. Though the exact figures are concealed in the classified “black budget,” tens of millions to hundreds of millions of dollars are believed to have been poured into lie-detection techniques as diverse as infrared imagers to study the eyes, scanners to peer into the brain, sensors to spot liars from a distance, and analysts trained to scrutinize the unconscious facial flutters that often accompany a falsehood.

The article goes on to discuss research on deception using fMRI, electroencephalograms, eye scans and microexpressions. They conclude:

For now, the new lie-detection techniques are likely to remain in the same ambiguous ethical holding area as so many other privacy issues in the twitchy post-9/11 years. We’ll give up a lot to keep our cities, airplanes and children safe. But it’s hard to say in the abstract when “a lot” becomes “too much.” We can only hope that we’ll recognize it when it happens.