fMRI: The New Lie Detector?

A new study, conducted by scientists at Stanford University, claims that machinery can be programmed to detect if a person is being truthful or deceptive.

The article, written by Tommy Sander and published on Monday September 13, 2010 in USC’s Neon Tommy news website, is interesting to say the least .

Machines already control or at least regulate much of our lives as it is today.  Are we ready to hand over, to a machine, determinations of the intimacies of the human mind?

Well, researchers in the psychology department at Stanford are trying to unlock the secrets of the mind.  They have begun working on extracting and understanding memories using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brain.

Dr. Jesse Rissman and his research colleagues tested their theory in a study where participants were assessed on their ability to accurately recall a certain set of faces.  As the participants responded to the faces scientists simultaneously recorded their brain activity with an fMRI.  They used the scans to identify unique brain patterns which are associated with memory.

Basically, scientists are using a very high tech and expensive MRI for deep brain activity induced by memories.  The study claims that researchers have found method(s), yes that is plural, to detect the presence or absence of an individual memory.  That may sound like an impossible feat but with the pace of technological advances in the 21st century many impossible feats are coming to light as incredible innovations are being created. But does that necessarily equate to improvements?

The article claims that the fMRI scan can be helpful in determining the accuracy of legal testimonies in the future.  The article did not state how far into the future we have to wait until this can be perfected scientific evidence of truth telling.  However, in 2009 lawyers attempted to use fMRI data as evidence in a court of law but eventually withdrew their request.  This year a psychologist in Tennessee obtained evidence from another MRI truth verifying organization and submitted it to a court of law, but the judge refused to admit the evidence.  Judges refuse to admit such evidence for obvious reasons, which have been stated by Dr. Rissman himself.

Rissman acknowledges that the convoluted intricacies of the mind qualify all the data as unreliable.  In effect, the brain scans are only as accurate as a person’s memory.  Therefore, essentially all that was measured was a person’s belief that he/she had seen a particular face.  There are also other drawbacks to testing with fMRIs such as the machines ability to determine and account for the difference in explicit memories and implicit memories.

Is the way of the future to assign machines the ability to detect if a person is being truthful or delusive?  If so, how accurate can a machine be against the most powerful tool in the universe…the human mind?

Image from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2010/03/23/a-psychopaths-brain-on-fmri/

One response to “fMRI: The New Lie Detector?”

  1. Keith D. says:

    I think this technology is a good long way off from being used for this. There are so many different brains and personalities and types of people, it’ll take quite a while before we can catalog them and figure out what’s reliable across the board and what only works with certain people in certain situations, not to mention the cost of using fMRI and their limited availability. Even the work pioneered by Dr. Ekman took decades before it really started to come to fruition and gel as an effective means of deception detection.

    But even limited to the shorter term this research is still worthwhile because of all that may come out of it with regards to finding new avenues of treatment for diseases and disorders of the brain, so I applaud their work. Imagine, for example, if we could figure out a treatment or cure for psychopathy, rather than simply learning to tell whether one was lying.

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