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Catching the Brain in a Lie: Is "Mind Reading" Deception Detection Sci-Fi—or Science?

| California Magazine 26/03/2018, 19+32


Catching the Brain in a Lie: Is “Mind Reading”
Deception Detection Sci-Fi—or Science?
By Eli Wolfe

Ever since the inception of our species, humans have wanted to peer inside each other’s minds. A major
reason we want to do this is because we lie. We lie a lot, and on the whole, we are quite good at it. The
capacity for deception is possibly one of the most significant cognitive gifts we received through evolution.

But it turns out that we lack an equal genius for spotting deception. Instead we keep trying to capitalize on
technology—hoping it can do the detecting for us.

The tantalizing prospect of using neuroscience to decode the brain just received a big funding boost:
President Obama’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative. Now in its
second year, the BRAIN Initiative ( has spent $300
and is estimated to invest up to $1 billion over the next decade, fostering inter-disciplinary research to
better visualize the human brain and understand how it works. Page 1 of 16

D.pdf). is lying or telling the brain imag​ing house-project-will-yield-brain-based-lie-detectors/105021/) in Atlantic technology com​ing Media’s national security publication Defense One. He envisions it as a soon. Alzheimer’s.berkeley. or even allow reconstruction of the visual imagery seen at the time of the crime. Among them: brain imaging that could identify deception. based on expert testimony received at nine public meetings. “Novel neuroscience techniques might soon reveal (with a cooperative witness) whether an individual recognizes a face or an object.” the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues recently reported (http://bioethics. we can pre​dict useful and more moral tool to solve crimes. we can predict lie detection to be one of its earliest applications.html)) scans such as those that the San Diego company No Lie MRI began marketing in 2006. is littered with examples of once-hyped lie detectors that fell short of being routinely reliable.” Bobby “Not only is ultra- Azarian. much less foolproof​—from the polygraph. The prime research advance that Azarian cited in his Defense One article—the creation of a more https://alumni. a neuroscientist who earned his Ph. they say. and to replace torturous lie de​tection to be techniques such as waterboarding for interrogating Page 2 of 16 . wrote (http://www.Catching the Brain in a Lie: Is "Mind Reading" Deception Detection Sci-Fi—or Science? | California Magazine 26/03/2018. But experts are exploring the intended and unintended consequences of technologies that could Part of the report. possesses knowledge relevant to a legal proceeding.defenseone. created by a police officer and medical student at UC Berkeley.” “Not only is ultra-high resolution brain imaging technology coming soon. 19+32 The prime public focus is on research to enhance mental and physical health— advances that might dramatically improve the prognosis for patients with conditions such as Parkinson’s. schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder. one of its earliest applica​- The eye-roll reaction from skeptical experts: Here we go again.” History. at George Mason high res​olution University. explores what it labels as the profound ethical and legal questions raised by the notion that the government—or anyone—could attain the means to “interrogate the brain. tions. to functional Magnetic Resonance Imagining (fMRI (http://fmri.

infection. “The ethical implications of potential technologies must be considered before those technologies are used widely.” Undaunted. who shown that we can insists the advanced spatial resolution of an MPI-based lie detector will get to.eecs. neurodegenerative diseases.berkeley.” So for the foreseeable future. to investigate how recent breakthroughs in MPI scanner technology could dramatically improve neuroscientists’ ability to study the function of the brain.” cautions the presidential bioethics commission in one of its recommendations. MPI is capable of increasing the think is right or sensitivity of a brain scan by 100-fold over traditional fMRIs—sometimes wrong.berkeley.html). “With advances in brain imaging resolution.Catching the Brain in a Lie: Is "Mind Reading" Deception Detection Sci-Fi—or Science? | California Magazine 26/03/2018. I think we’re going to get there. inflammation and TB through its increased sensitivity. We are collaborating with researchers at other Page 3 of 16 . resolution and safety. we are not pursuing any applications in deception detection.cfm?icde=0&aid=8827525) (including that funded by the National Institutes of Health via the BRAIN Initiative) not be linked in any way to lie detection that he refused to be interviewed about it. 19+32 sophisticated brain imaging technique called Magnetic Particle Imaging (MPI)—is the specialty of Steven Conolly ( and that’s a lev​el of knowl​edge MPI “doesn’t get us down to the cellular level. stroke. “It’s trying to sees enormous promise in the potential real-world applications of MPI for interpret what they deception detection. who also did not interview Conolly about his work. coronary artery disease.” says Azarian. But Conolly. who notes that his lab has designed and built all the MPI scanners in North America. “However. but it’s a lot better and you that no one has can probably see activity within groups of neurons. is the notion of brain-image lie detection more science fiction than science? “Avoid hype. maybe fairly soon. Azarian. But scholars have been criticized for putting the cart before the horse—puzzling through potential implications of a technology that is not ready for valid and reliable use https://alumni.nih. overstatement. Instead he emailed California the following statement: “We are very excited about MPI’s immense potential to improve early-stage diagnosis of conditions like cancer. nor do we see deception detection as a viable goal for MPI scanners.” make it far more effective at distinguishing brain patterns associated with honesty. professor of bioengineering and electrical engineering and computer science at UC Berkeley. unspecified areas of the brain. or what disparagingly referred to as “blobology” because the technique tracks they’re think​ing activity in large. and unfounded conclusions. is so adamant that his research ( through NIH Brain initiative funding. Theoretically. or the lack thereof. about.

which captures three-dimensional images of internal soft tissue. Soon fMRI became a well-established research tool within universities and hospitals. It’s not hard to see why this misunderstanding took hold: Unlike the polygraph. minds were blown by what appeared to be mindreading lie detection technology. But that didn’t stop law enforcement agencies from relying on the polygraph for interrogating criminal suspects.” The American Civil Liberties Union was so concerned by the potential threats to privacy that it filed a Freedom of Information Act request demanding that U. was inspired by the work of William Moulton Marston. Unlike an MRI. The Washington Post confidently speculated that with fMRI technology.berkeley. pulse rate. But the general public was far less familiar with it. the psychologist who created Wonder Woman (whose weapon of choice was the Lasso of Truth). an fMRI scan can look inside the brain and record a lie as it is being born—or so the theory goes. Then in 1992. Invented in 1921.” Avoiding hype makes sense. Neuroscience evidence has become common in U. this device measures blood pressure.S. Often it is used to establish diminished capacity. Its Berkeley mastermind. the request has received no response). in 1923.Catching the Brain in a Lie: Is "Mind Reading" Deception Detection Sci-Fi—or Science? | California Magazine 26/03/2018. court cases—it’s used in more than 5 percent of murder trials and 25 percent of death penalty gray-areas/truth-machine). on grounds that they failed the standards of the general scientific community. such https://alumni. So a decade ago. researchers pioneered fMRI. intelligence agencies turn over any records pertaining to government research and development of fMRI-based lie detector technology (to date. respiration and skin conductivity to pinpoint symptoms of lying. fMRI is capable of recording extended patterns of brain activity. even after it failed to catch infamous liars like the CIA mole Aldrich Ames or Gary Ridgway. John Larson. especially if you look at the history of lie detection. The predictions of a lie-free future came thick and fast. the Green River Killer. the Supreme Court ruling in Frye v.berkeley. “The Lie May Be on Its Last Legs. United States prohibited the admission in court of polygraph results. helping produce invaluable data on normal and abnormal brain functions. Because blood flow and neural activity are closely linked. Two years later. which measured symptoms of deception. human behavior and diseases. 19+32 creates the expectation that it works. fMRI can monitor changes in blood oxygen flow in the brain. starting with the polygraph ( Page 4 of 16 . when the company No Lie MRI went public.S.

19+32 as in cases involving children and it helps to understand how fMRI was supposed to divine Page 5 of 16 . It starts with the premise that an fMRI scan can actually show distinctive patterns of activity that correlate with deceptive or https://alumni. But although India became the first country (https://www.Catching the Brain in a Lie: Is "Mind Reading" Deception Detection Sci-Fi—or Science? | California Magazine 26/03/2018.berkeley. to convict a man based on brain scan evidence. judges judges have repeatedly rejected attempts to introduce fMRI lie- detection results in criminal and civil cases. To see why.

For example.gallantlab. there are different kinds of lies. a professor of neuroscience at UC Berkeley. so the extent of neural activity can be relevant in determining whether you’re lying.” said Andrea Roth (https://www. an assistant professor at Berkeley Law. Last year. In both tests. which examines whether the subject possesses knowledge of a crime that only a criminal would know—for example. One is the control question test. The conclusion: Virtually all fMRI-based lie-detection experiments suffer from serious design flaws. “If you tell the truth.nature. “In theory. the search for this Holy Grail of deception-control in the brain oversimplifies the complexity involved in planning a lie. “I mean. For Once the measurements are completed. Anthony Wagner (https://psychology. But according to Jack Gallant (http://www. “Most things in the brain are distributed over multiple brain areas. The prefrontal cortex. 19+32 honest activity. there are different ways of telling a lie….stanford. what objects were at a crime scene.” Thus it may not come as a surprise that experiments testing fMRI-based lie detection techniques are riddled with confounds. you don’t have to remember anything at all.Catching the Brain in a Lie: Is "Mind Reading" Deception Detection Sci-Fi—or Science? | California Magazine 26/03/2018. there’s no consensus in scientific circles about what part of the brain controls researchers measure the magnitude and location of neural activity in a subject’s brain in response to questions. you’re in good company—most neuroscientists would agree. If that sounds too there are different motives for lying. The second is a guilty knowledge test.” “The [other] idea.” Roth added. so you can see which parts are firing up when you get to certain This involves asking a series of banal questions to establish a baseline for the subject’s truthful answers before the real interrogation begins. a professor of neuroscience at Stanford University and a member of the Law and Neuroscience Page 6 of 16 . “is that there are certain parts of the brain that are associated with lying.php?facID=15052). in one experiment a https://alumni.berkeley. and the patterns relating brain activity to any other sort of behavior state tend to be thoroughly complicated. is one promising candidate. a researcher should be able to determine whether a person is lying. it takes more neural activity to lie than tell the truth because you have to construct a narrative.” The two types of tests used to trigger these reactions are virtually identical to the ones used for polygraphs.” Gallant said. As Mark Twain once observed. co-authored a meta-analysis (http://www. which is responsible for regulating higher planning and other executive goals.html) on dozens of lab-based studies testing whether or not fMRI could distinguish the lying mental state. Most memories that people have are not accurate—they’re confabulated.

com/).” Wagner said.Catching the Brain in a Lie: Is "Mind Reading" Deception Detection Sci-Fi—or Science? | California Magazine 26/03/2018.” he says. “So the signals being picked up don’t necessarily have to be about the mental state of lying or deception. having chosen one in advance.” Nor is there a reliable way to prevent countermeasures that can disrupt the fMRI results—something as minute as wiggling your toes or clenching your anus can muck up the Page 7 of 16 . But the greatest doozy remains a conceptual one: To distinguish a truth from a lie by looking at a brain scan.” said Mark D’Esposito (http://psychology. and that’s a level of knowledge that no one has shown that we can get to. It’s just their a neuroscientist has to be able to “read” brain activity on an incredibly nuanced level. “They could have to do with attention and memory that differ between the conditions of the experiment because of how the experiment was conducted.berkeley. It certainly hasn’t swayed Joel Huizenga. “Anyone with a Ph. Even if the technology isn’t perfect.berkeley. he asks. Upon comparison. or what they’re thinking about. But in a similar experiment. founder and CEO of No Lie MRI (http://www. two groups of subjects were scanned while they viewed a series of numbers.noliemri. can keep anything out of court. both groups showed similar brain activity. despite their rejection by the courts. But as with the polygraph. why should society be denied the use of a tool that is still more sophisticated than a polygraph? https://alumni. “It’s trying to interpret what they think is right or wrong. 19+32 subject was instructed to “steal” one of two objects from a drawer. a professor of neuroscience and psychology at UC Berkeley and one of the earliest practitioners of fMRI technology. who staunchly contends that fMRIs are 100 percent accurate lie detectors. One way of interpreting that information is to say that the scan detected that lie. Huizenga goes so far as to suggest that neuroscientists who have studied and dismissed his company’s technology are driven by politics or have been bribed (he did not provide evidence to substantiate these claims). In the scanner. the subject denied possession of both objects—but the brain signaled a stronger fMRI response when the subject was referring to the object that was stolen. One group was instructed to lie about not seeing the number they had selected when it flashed on the screen while the other group passively viewed the numbers. expert skepticism doesn’t convince everyone.D.

a brain-scanning device capable of detecting deception may be possible.” he says.Catching the Brain in a Lie: Is "Mind Reading" Deception Detection Sci-Fi—or Science? | California Magazine 26/03/2018. Gallant at Berkeley concedes that in 50 years. confession evidence.” arrestee that “any incrim​inating So what happens if somewhere in the near or far future. the two methods used in the U. “These people are in an ivory tower. Currently. fMRI-based lie detection material is not allowed in court under the Frye standard and the Daubert standard.berkeley. to determine the admissibility of scientific evidence. the Berkeley law professor. with the right technological advances. it will almost certainly be under the Daubert Page 8 of 16 . Under the Frye standard.S. But here’s the thing: Even staunch skeptics won’t rule out the possibility that researchers could create an accurate brain- imaging lie detector in the future.” Huizenga’s claim will almost certainly set more eyes rolling in the neuroscience community. “God knows we also admit tons of other evidence that have pretty darn high error rates. If evidence from an fMRI-based lie detector is ever admitted into court. judges assess the general opinion of the scientific community. “Eye witness Miranda Warnings testimony. Under the Daubert standard. technology does thoughts he produce a brain-based lie detection technique—whether improved fMRI. consciously https://alumni. bite marks—all this junk science that you may include a new read about in The New York Times. 19+32 “Should we work toward some theoretical perfection in 20 years? If you don’t start something now. you’ll never make it better.” says Roth. judges in federal court are treated as “gatekeepers” and are expected to admit expert testimony based on their own assessment of the science. you’ll never optimize it. we’re letting all that in as evidence warning to an of guilt.

it’s a titillating hypothetical—the kind of scenario that gets tossed out during a pitch meeting for a new sci-fi show. Frankly. Schmerber v. Yet the concept of an authoritative lie detector intrigues some advocates of judicial reform. 19+32 MPI or some yet-to-be-invented method—that courts deem accurate ruminates or recalls enough to be admissible? may be used against him. citizens are protected against self-incrimination—but that only applies to verbal Page 9 of 16 . But it has also attracted serious thinkers in neurolaw who have tried to predict how this technology could potentially transform the legal system. California determined that physical evidence. a neuroscience expert at Duke University. a court wouldn’t have to depend on a jury to determine the credibility of an eyewitness.duke. does not come under the scope of the Fifth. Privacy advocates would refuse to accept this interpretation of mental privacy. Miranda Warnings may include a new warning to an arrestee that “any incriminating thoughts he consciously ruminates or recalls may be used against him.berkeley. a senior policy analyst at the ACLU. has mused that if fMRI-based lie detectors become a prosecutors might argue that a defendant’s thoughts represent physical evidence and thus would no longer be privileged under the Fifth Amendment. was inconceivable when the Constitution was written—“but any fair reading of the principles that are incorporated should extend them to this technology. With it. “We’re getting to the point in science where we realize that the mind-body distinction is actually quite illusory. If there was such a thing as an accurate brain-based lie detector. or a defendant’s https://alumni.Catching the Brain in a Lie: Is "Mind Reading" Deception Detection Sci-Fi—or Science? | California Magazine 26/03/2018. In an essay. of course. and there’s no real clear separation between mind and body.” Roth says. If someone refused to take it. “Your brain is just another part of your body.” The reality of a brain-based lie detector also would introduce a new threat to defendants: the expectation that anyone innocent of wrongdoing would take a test.” said Jay Stanley. like a blood sample. Brain imaging.” A lot of ink has been spilled describing the fallout. “would you assume that the person was lying?” Roth asks.” Under the Fifth Amendment. Nita Farahany (https://law.

But in an age in which the boundaries of privacy have grown increasingly It also could help pinpoint and then cull from the jury pool those with implicit bias.Catching the Brain in a Lie: Is "Mind Reading" Deception Detection Sci-Fi—or Science? | California Magazine 26/03/2018. 19+32 account of an alleged crime. DNA. Because the government turned down a Freedom of Information Act request from the ACLU.” The White House has high hopes that its ambitious Brain Initiative will revolutionize our understanding of the brain. On a more fundamental level.genome. likening it to the landmark Human Genome Project (http://www. but also in part by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). in addressing the Rome Congress of the International Association of Applied Psychology. “We are a justice system that loves gadgets—we love the Page 10 of 16 .berkeley. But we don’t like lie detectors. of course. “We’re very happy to have gadgets be a part of our mode of proof. spoke out against the polygraph and other methods of penetrating man’s “mysterious core.” Roth says. Wherever the consequences of the BRAIN Initiative lead. 2015 . when Pope Pius XII. blood typing and radar guns. which develops military technology and also gave us the Internet. the mind is truly the last place of personal refuge. Its research is funded by federal health agencies. the concept of accurate lie-detector technology may represent an idea too repugnant to justify its regular use in society—both in courts and outside of them.11:19am Filed under: Human Behavior (/california-magazine/topic/human-behavior)Innovation (/california- magazine/topic/innovation)Law + Policy (/california-magazine/topic/law-policy)Science + Health (/california-magazine/topic/science-health) Related topics: BRAIN Initiative (/california-magazine/topic/brain-initiative)lie detector (/california- magazine/topic/lie-detector-0)deception detector (/california-magazine/topic/deception-detector)fMRI (/california-magazine/topic/fmri)functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (/california- magazine/topic/functional-magnetic-resonance-imaging)MPI (/california-magazine/topic/mpi)Magnetic Particle Imaging (/california-magazine/topic/magnetic-particle-imaging)President Obama (/california- https://alumni. it’s impossible to know with certainty whether any agency is actually interested in using brain-imaging technology for counter-terrorism or military purposes. All these scenarios and concerns. photographs.” Pius was concerned about the soul. some remain concerned about possible ulterior motives. This idea was summed up in April 1958. a well-documented phenomenon among jurors. Would people be willing to give that up? Posted on July 22. are based on a hypothetical future.