Category Archives: fMRI

Researchers say technology can show when and how a lie is created inside the brain

Hat tip to the Anti-Polygraph Blog for a link to the San Francisco Chronicle of 6 August, which carried a detailed story on the work of No Lie MRI, the commercial fMRI-for-deception-detection company:

Next week, a San Diego-area company with the crass-but-catchy name No Lie MRI will begin offering clients in California a new high-tech lie-detection service, based on neuroscience that is zeroing in on the “Pinocchio Reflex.” Ensconced in an MRI machine in Newport Beach, these customers will answer questions while a slew of images reveals when and where there is heightened activity in their brains — theoretically indicating the creation of deception. The company claims 50 prospective customers already, including wives who want to assure their husbands of their sexual fidelity, fathers fighting accusations of child molestation in child-custody disputes, and one California defendant the company won’t identify who faces the possibility of a death penalty unless he can convince a jury of his innocence. […]

Skeptics already complain that No Lie MRI and another company, Cephos Corp. of Massachusetts, are rushing to market with technology that has not been rigorously tested to know how reliable it is.

One of the skeptics is Harvard Psychology Professor Stephen Kosslyn:

Kosslyn told the New York Times Magazine earlier this year that trying to combat terrorism by seeking a lie zone in the brain is rather like trying to get to the moon by climbing a tree: Your progress upward creates the illusion of progress, but in the end you’re still in the tree and the moon is still in the sky.

There is also a podcast available on the SFC site, featuring Chronicle reporters Vicki Haddock and Jonathan Curiel talking about the ethical and legal issues involved. Download MP3 here.

Commercialisation of MRI for deception detection

The recent ACLU FOI request seems to have prompted several comments on the thorny issue of commercialisation of MRI for deception detection.

First, Brain Waves (20 June) reported that two companies are to begin offering “Lie Detection” using MRI. (Actually, this is pretty old news – Malcolm Ritter reported on the work of the Cephos Corporation and NoLieMRI back in January this year.) Mind Hacks (27 June) picked up on the Brain Waves story and added value with some good links here.

On 26 June USA Today ran an interesting piece on the commercialisation of MRI that opened:

Two companies plan to market the first lie-detecting devices that use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and say the new tests can spot liars with 90% accuracy.

[…] No Lie MRI plans to begin offering brain-based lie-detector tests in Philadelphia in late July or August, says Joel Huizenga, founder of the San Diego-based start-up. Cephos Corp. of Pepperell, Mass., will offer a similar service later this year using MRI machines at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, says its president, Steven Laken.

One would hope that with the research on such technology in its infancy, we wouldn’t be seeing the technology in court any time soon. Think again:

[…]The start-up companies say the technology is ready now. Both say they will focus on winning acceptance in court for tests taken by customers. No Lie MRI already is working with a defendant in a California criminal case, Huizenga says.

Finally, also on 26 June, NPR’s Talk of the Nation featured a segment on The Future of Lie Detecting in which Daniel Langeben and Paul Root Wolpe discussed the use of MRI for lie detection (Hat Tip to Mind Hacks and the Antipolygraph Blog).

FOI request from the ACLU aims to expose whether US Government agencies are using brain scanning technology to detect deception

The Internet is buzzing with the news that the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a Freedom of Information request seeking information about Government use of brain scanners in interrogations

According to the ACLU press release, the organisation has filed the request because:

“There are certain things that have such powerful implications for our society — and for humanity at large — that we have a right to know how they are being used so that we can grapple with them as a democratic society,” said Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Project. “These brain-scanning technologies are far from ready for forensic uses and if deployed will inevitably be misused and misunderstood.”

[…] “These brain-scanning technologies have potentially far-reaching implications, yet uncertain results and effectiveness,” said Steinhardt. “And we are still in our infancy when it comes to understanding the underlying processes of the brain that the scanners have begun to reveal. We do not want to see our government yet again deploying a potentially momentous technology unilaterally and in secret, before Americans have had a chance to figure out how it fits in with our values as a nation.”

Earlier in June the ACLU sponsored a forum featuring experts discussing the use of fMRI as a “lie detector”, the video of which can be downloaded here.

Other coverage that goes beyond reprinting the ACLU press release:

More on fMRI to detect deception on this blog here.

Nature focuses on ethics of brain scanning to detect deception

BrainEthics Blog discusses two articles in the latest issue of Nature:

[…] this week’s issue of Nature caught me surprised with the release of two articles on ethical aspects of neuroscience. It really demonstrates how hot and important this issue is. Basically, both articles are on the application of brain scanners to detect lies.

The articles are in Nature Volume 441 Number 7096, on page 207:

  • Neuroethics needed: Researchers should speak out on claims made on behalf of their science.

and page 918:

  • Lure of lie detectors spooks ethicists: US companies are planning to profit from lie-detection technology that uses brain scans, but the move to commercialize a little-tested method is ringing ethical and scientific alarm bells. Helen Pearson reports.

Regardless of whether you can access the Nature articles, I urge you to go take a look at the BrainEthics post.  Does a great job of summarising the key issues.

The ethics of fMRI for deception detection

Thank you to Enrica Dente’s Lie-Detection list, for bringing a new article in the Stanford Report (May 3) to our attention. The article summarises a recent talk by ethicist and law Professor Hank Greely about the ethics of using fMRI for deception detection:

Greely […] discussed his concerns about the new lie detection technology at a campus Science, Technology and Society seminar April 14. Greely said he is excited by the potential for improved lie detection but concerned that it could lead to personal-privacy violations and a host of legal problems—especially if the techniques prove unreliable.

[…] “Deception is not a very clear-cut, well-defined thing,” Greely said. “We know people can remember things that never happened. How does that show up on an fMRI lie detection test?”

Access the full article here.

Reading Minds: Lie Detection, Neuroscience, Law, and Society

If you are in California this Friday, 10 March (and how I wish I was!), this would be a very interesting way to spend your day. Stanford Law School is putting on a one-day conference on lie detection and neuroscience. Here’s the blurb:

A revolution in neuroscience has vastly expanded our understanding of the human brain and its operations. Our increasing ability to monitor the brain’s operations holds the possibility of being able to detect directly a person’s mental state. One of the most interesting possible applications is using neuroscientific methods to provide reliable lie detection. Several scientists, and several companies, claim that this use has arrived. The morning session of the conference will examine the scientific plausibility of reliable lie detection through neuroscientific methods, discussing different methods and assessing their likely success. The afternoon session will assume that at least one of those methods is established as reliable and will then explore what social and legal ramifications will follow. This conference is free and open to the public.

There’s a link to the full agenda on the conference website, but just look at the line up:

Wow. Thank you to Neuroethics & Law Blog for the highlight!

Who’s the liar? Brain MRI stands up to polygraph test

Yet more fMRI coverage. This press release from the publishers of Radiology contains one of the most optimistic statements I’ve yet seen attributed to a researcher (as opposed one made by a commercial venture). Do people really believe we are anywhere near a scientific method that should be accepted in a courtroom?

Traditional polygraph tests to determine whether someone is lying may take a back seat to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), according to a study appearing in the February issue of Radiology. Researchers from Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia used fMRI to show how specific areas of the brain light up when a person tells a lie.

[…] “Since brain activation is arguably less susceptible to being controlled by an individual, our research will hopefully eliminate the shortcomings of the conventional polygraph test and produce a new method of objective lie detection that can be used reliably in a courtroom or other setting,” Dr. Mohamed said.

The study is the one referred to below, published in the February issue of Radiology.

Brain Scans May Be Used As Lie Detectors

fMRI is all the rage this month! Here is another article, this time from Malcolm Ritter at AP, published on 28 Jan. This article does a better job than some of highlighting some of the pitfalls in and limitations of deploying fMRI for lie detection in the real world.

[…] California entrepreneur Joel T. Huizenga plans to use that work to start offering lie-detecting services in Philadelphia this July. His outfit, No Lie MRI Inc., will serve government agencies and “anybody that wants to demonstrate that they’re telling the truth,” he said.

[…] Dr. Mark George, the genial neurologist and psychiatrist who let me lie in his scanner and be grilled by his computer, said he doesn’t see a privacy problem with the technology. That’s because it’s impossible to test people without their consent, he said. Subjects have to cooperate so fully — holding the head still, and reading and responding to the questions, for example — that they have to agree to the scan. “It really doesn’t read your mind if you don’t want your mind to be read,” he said. “If I were wrongly accused and this were available, I’d want my defense lawyer to help me get this.” So maybe the technology is better termed a “truth confirmer” than lie detector, he said.

[…] Jennifer Vendemia, a University of South Carolina researcher who studies deception and the brain, said she finds Laken’s timetable premature. So little research has been done on using fMRI for this purpose that it’s too soon to make any judgment about how useful it could be, she said. Without studies to see how well the technique works in other labs — a standard procedure in the scientific world — its reliability might be an issue, said Dr. Sean Spence of the University of Sheffield in England, who also studies fMRI for detecting deception.

Many thanks to the Brain Scan Blog for highlighting this one.

Brain Mapping of Deception and Truth Telling about an Ecologically Valid Situation

Another fMRI study. I haven’t been able to access the full text, but the abstract immediately raises questions about (a) the definition of ‘ecologically valid’ and (b) the boldness of the conclusion. Click on the link for the whole abstract.
Brain Mapping of Deception and Truth Telling about an Ecologically Valid Situation: Functional MR Imaging and Polygraph Investigation—Initial Experience
Feroze B. Mohamed, Scott H. Faro, Nathan J. Gordon, Steven M. Platek, Harris Ahmad, and J. Michael Williams
Radiology Volume 238, Issue 2, February 2006

Purpose: To examine the neural correlates during deception and truth telling by using a functional magnetic resonance (MR) imaging technique and an ecologically valid task and to compare the results with those of a standard polygraph examination.

[…] Conclusion: Specific areas of the brain involved in deception or truth telling can be depicted with functional MR imaging.

Update: A press release issued on 31 Jan reveals what makes this an ecologically valid study: “A mock shooting was staged, in which blank bullets were fired in a testing room. Five volunteers were asked to tell the truth when asked a series of questions about their involvement, and six were asked to deliberately lie. Each volunteer was examined with fMRI to observe brain activation while they answered questions either truthfully or deceptively.”

Don’t Even Think About Lying: How brain scans are reinventing the science of lie detection

Steve Silberman at Wired has filed a detailed article on developments in fMRI research on identifying brain activity associated with deception in Issue 14.01 – January 2006.

[…] fMRI is poised to transform the security industry, the judicial system, and our fundamental notions of privacy. I’m in a lab at Columbia University, where scientists are using the technology to analyze the cognitive differences between truth and lies. By mapping the neural circuits behind deception, researchers are turning fMRI into a new kind of lie detector that’s more probing and accurate than the polygraph, the standard lie-detection tool employed by law enforcement and intelligence agencies for nearly a century.

Silberman has done a thorough job, but glosses over many of the theoretical and practical problems with application of this technique in law enforcement work, including the fact that it requires a highly co-operative subject – and one without any metal of any kind, including shrapnel (which might impact on its usefulness in military interrogation scenarios?) in their body, given that the test involves lying in a giant magnet. There are also potential legal and ethical issues – see:

Cory Doctorow’s comment at Boing Boing


Thompson, Sean Kevin, The Legality of the Use of Psychiatric Neuroimaging in Intelligence Interrogation. Cornell Law Review, Vol. 90, No. 6, September 2005. (The link is to the abstract, from where you can currently access the full text pdf).


Slate Magazine’s comment on Technology vs torture, 18 Aug 2004 also discusses the legal and ethical issues surrounding the use of fMRI and similar technologies during interrogation.

You Can’t Hide Your Lyin’ Brain

Associated Press, Sep. 28, 2005

A scientist at the Medical University of South Carolina has found that magnetic resonance imaging machines also can serve as lie detectors. The study found MRI machines, which are used to take images of the brain, are more than 90 percent accurate at detecting deception, said Dr. Mark George, a distinguished professor of psychiatry, radiology and neurosciences. That compares with polygraphs that range from 80 percent to “no better than chance” at finding the truth, George said. His results are to be published this week in the journal Biological Psychiatry.

Here’s the citation:

Detecting Deception Using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging
F. Andrew Kozel, Kevin A. Johnson, Qiwen Mu, Emily L. Grenesko, Steven J. Laken and Mark S. George
Biological Psychiatry, 58(8); pp 605-613

The ability to accurately detect deception is presently very limited. Detecting deception might be more accurately achieved by measuring the brain correlates of lying in an individual. In addition, a method to investigate the neurocircuitry of deception might provide a unique opportunity to test the neurocircuitry of persons in whom deception is a prominent component (i.e., conduct disorder, antisocial personality disorder, etc.). In this study, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to show that specific regions were reproducibly activated when subjects deceived.

Subjects participated in a mock crime stealing either a ring or a watch. While undergoing an fMRI, the subjects denied taking either object, thus telling the truth with some responses, and lying with others. A Model-Building Group (MBG, n = 30) was used to develop the analysis methods, and the methods were subsequently applied to an independent Model-Testing Group (MTG, n = 31). We were able to correctly differentiate truthful from deceptive responses, correctly identifying the object stolen, for 93% of the subjects in the MBG and 90% of the subjects in the MTG. This is the first study to use fMRI to detect deception at the individual level. Further work is required to determine how well this technology will work in different settings and populations.

Brain imaging with MRI could replace lie detector

Radiological Society of North America press release date: 29-Nov-2004

When people lie, they use different parts of their brains than when they tell the truth, and these brain changes can be measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), according to a study presented today at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America. The results suggest that fMRI may one day prove a more accurate lie detector than the polygraph.

“There may be unique areas in the brain involved in deception that can be measured with fMRI,” said lead author Scott H. Faro, M.D. “We were able to create consistent and robust brain activation related to a real-life deception process.”