Category Archives: Brain scans

The New York Times is “Looking for the Lie”

An excellent, interesting and detailed article from the New York Times this weekend about the science and practice of lie detection. The author, Robin Marantz Henig, covers many areas, including developments and problems in fMRI deception detection, ERPs and ongoing research at the DoDPI. She interviews several of the key figures in these fields, including Paul Ekman, who provides the article’s most depressing quote:

Even though Ekman has been hired to teach his technique to embassy workers and military intelligence officers — to the tune of $35,000 for a five-day workshop — his low-tech approach to lie-catching is definitely out of vogue. “After 9/11,” he said, “I contacted different federal agencies — the Defense Department, the C.I.A. — and said, ‘I think there are some things I can teach your agents that can be of help right now.”‘ But several turned him down, he said, with one person bluntly stating, “I can’t support anything unless it ends in a machine doing it.”

UPDATE (1): BrainEthics has a thoughtful commentary on this piece and on earlier reporting of the various recent “fMRI for lie detection “stories.

UPDATE (2): Another commentary here, this time from the Bioethics & Law Blog.

[tags] fMRI, nonverbal behavior, ERP, deception [/tags]

Polygraphing sex offenders in the UK and US$5 million for ERP research

The BBC’s online News Magazine featured an article discussing the recent US grant to Jennifer Vendamia to further her research on ERPs and deception, linking it to the recent decision to polygraph sex offenders in UK prisons.

The future of lying, BBC News, 14 January, 2005

As the British government unveils plans to make lie detector tests mandatory for convicted paedophiles, some scientists in the US are working on more advanced technology which might be better equipped at detecting deception. […] The US Department of Defense has given Dr Jennifer Vendemia a $5m grant to work on her theory that by monitoring brainwaves she can detect whether someone is lying. She claims the system has an accuracy of between 94% and 100% and is an improvement on the existing polygraph tests, which rely on heart rate and blood pressure, respiratory rate and sweatiness.

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.”

Dissociable Roles of Prefrontal and Anterior Cingulate Cortices in Deception

Nobuhito Abe, Maki Suzuki, Takashi Tsukiura, Etsuro Mori, Keiichiro Yamaguchi, Masatoshi Itoh, and Toshikatsu Fujii
Cerebral Cortex 2006 16(2), pp192-199, Feb 2006

Recent neuroimaging studies have shown the importance of the prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortices in deception. However, little is known about the role of each of these regions during deception. Using positron emission tomography (PET), we measured brain activation while participants told truths or lies about two types of real-world events: experienced and unexperienced.

The imaging data revealed that activity of the dorsolateral, ventrolateral and medial prefrontal cortices was commonly associated with both types of deception (pretending to know and pretending not to know), whereas activity of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) was only associated with pretending not to know. Regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF) increase in the ACC was positively correlated with that in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex only during pretending not to know.

These results suggest that the lateral and medial prefrontal cortices have general roles in deception, whereas the ACC contributes specifically to pretending not to know.

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 abnormalities found in pathological liars

Liars’ brains make fibbing come naturally, 30 September 2005

[…] “Some people have an edge up on others in their ability to tell lies,” says Adrian Raine, a psychologist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “They are better wired for the complex computations involved in sophisticated lies.” He found that pathological liars have on average more white matter in their prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that is active during lying, and less grey matter than people who are not serial fibbers. White matter enables quick, complex thinking while grey matter mediates inhibitions.

See also:

First evidence of brain abnormalities found in pathological liars

University of Southern California press release, 29-Sep-2005


Prefrontal white matter in pathological liars

The British Journal of Psychiatry (2005) 187: 320-325

Invited commentary: Prefrontal white matter – the tissue of lies?
The British Journal of Psychiatry (2005) 187: 326-327

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.”

Can’t Hide Your Lying … Face?

Wired News Oct. 14, 2004

[…] American researchers are exploring lie-detection technologies that may banish polygraph machines to the history books. At the University of Houston, a computer scientist is trying to uncover lies by measuring heat levels in the face. In South Carolina, a professor hopes she has found the key to deception in brain waves. Elsewhere, researchers are looking at everything from speech patterns to eye movements to “brain fingerprints.” Success remains elusive, however, and no newfangled lie-detection machines appear ready for prime time. Skeptics, meanwhile, doubt that any technology will improve much on the mixed record of polygraph machines, which are often used in the United States to screen employees and test the truthfulness of criminal suspects.