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.

Leave a Reply