December 01, 2004
Brain Scans Show More Of Brain Activated For Lies Than For Truths

Will brain scans be able to always detect a lie?

CHICAGO – 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." Dr. Faro is professor and vice-chairman of radiology and director of the Functional Brain Imaging Center and Clinical MRI at Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia.

The researchers created a relevant situation for 11 normal volunteers. Six of the volunteers were asked to shoot a toy gun with blank bullets and then to lie about their participation. The non-shooters were asked to tell the truth about the situation. The researchers examined the individuals with fMRI, while simultaneously administering a polygraph exam. The polygraph measured three physiologic responses: respiration, blood pressure and galvanic skin conductance, or the skin's ability to conduct electricity, which increases when an individual perspires.

The volunteers were asked questions that pertained to the situation, along with unrelated control questions. In all cases, the polygraph and fMRI accurately distinguished truthful responses from deceptive ones. fMRI showed activation in several areas of the brain during the deception process. These areas were located in the frontal (medial inferior and pre-central), temporal (hippocampus and middle temporal), and limbic (anterior and posterior cingulate) lobes. During a truthful response, the fMRI showed activation in the frontal lobe (inferior and medial), temporal lobe (inferior) and cingulate gyrus.

Overall, there were regional differences in activation between deceptive and truthful conditions. Furthermore, there were more areas of the brain activated during the deception process compared to the truth-telling condition.

Dr. Faro's study is the first to use polygraph correlation and a modified version of positive control questioning techniques in conjunction with fMRI. It is also the first to involve a real-life stimulus. "I believe this is a vital approach to understand this very complex type of cognitive behavior," Dr. Faro said. "The real-life stimulus is critical if this technique is to be developed into a practical test of deception."

Because physiologic responses can vary among individuals and, in some cases, can be regulated, the polygraph is not considered a wholly reliable means of lie detection. According to Dr. Faro, it is too early to tell if fMRI can be "fooled" in the same manner.

However, these results are promising in that they suggest a consistency in brain patterns that might be beyond conscious control.

"We have just begun to understand the potential of fMRI in studying deceptive behavior," Dr. Faro said. "We plan to investigate the potential of fMRI both as a stand-alone test and as a supplement to the polygraph with the goal of creating the most accurate test for deception."

Dr. Faro's co-authors on this paper were Feroze Mohamed, Ph.D., Nathan Gordon, M.S., Steve Platek, Ph.D, Mike Williams, Ph.D., and Harris Ahmad, M.D.

Faro wants money from national security agencies for larger studies.

Will fMRI stand alone as a test for deception? Dr. Faro admits he's not yet sure: "The polygraph looks at only peripheral stimulus as the end result of a long chain of primary central areas of activation of the brain. We're now getting to the origin of the activation."

Dr. Faro called the results "promising" and said he hopes to gain the interest of major organizations such as the Department of Homeland Security, the National Security Administration or the CIA to help fund further research and larger group studies using the same methods, but he says the technology is expensive.

"It's probably going to be used on the academic side to understand psycho-social behavior, and on the criminal side, it's going to be used for major criminals," said Dr. Faro. "We're looking at areas of tremendous concern with terrorism, where the expense is minimal compared to the potential disaster. Looking at industrial or business-related crimes, certainly Martha Stewart could afford this test if she was truly interested."

Imagine people negotiating a huge business deal demonstrating their sincerity by agreeing to a brain scan while being asked questions about whether they intend to go through with a deal in good faith. Questions about each of the commitments in the contract could be asked. Will that give an advantage to superficial people who are sincere but prone to changing their minds? How much do intentions matter?

Update: One thought: If one dreams up a lie well ahead of time (like days or weeks) will its recall look more like a truth on a brain scan? If one can fantasize the lie and make it into something like a real memory it might require less mental effort to recall and/or construct than a lie made up on the spot. Therefore in a brain scan it might look more like a regular memory.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 December 01 12:48 AM  Brain Surveillance


Comments
Alexander said at December 1, 2004 4:54 PM:

If I remember correctly an earlier post of yours mentioned that false memories can be differentiated from real memories by a MRI brain scan. I would guess that an intentional false memory will have the same result. Just my two cents.

Alexander

Jody said at December 1, 2004 6:48 PM:

Six of the volunteers were asked to shoot a toy gun with blank bullets and then to lie about their participation. The non-shooters were asked to tell the truth about the situation. ...

Furthermore, there were more areas of the brain activated during the deception process compared to the truth-telling condition.

Presumably more areas of the brain are also activated when a physical action is recalled. I assume this was controlled for as it's kinda obvious, but I saw nothing in the writeups...

Randall Parker said at December 1, 2004 7:41 PM:

Alexander, You are correct and I had forgotten about that one. So maybe it would be hard to remember a false memory and recall it as if it was a real one.

I wonder if spies could be trained to remember a false memory in a way that looks like a real one under MRI interrogation by, say, watching a video film made of them acting out the false memory.

Patrick said at December 2, 2004 12:14 AM:

I wonder how much of the freedom we have in modern societies is due to things just being too much trouble to enforce.

A quick and easy lie detector wins the "war on drugs" for example. "Are you now, or have you ever taken an illegal drug?" Whenever you go to renew your driving licence. Next year there is another question about exceeding the speed limit.

This puts a huge advantage in the hands of governments that have not shown a great deal of responsibility in the past.

On the other hand, maybe the reason so many stupid laws are put up with by democracies is that everyone accepts that the police will never bother enforcing them, except for cases where they have reason to, which most respectable adults figure will not be them. Having strict enforcement may lead to our cleaning up our shoddy legal systems.

David Nishimura said at December 2, 2004 8:10 AM:

Jim Lindgren at the Volokh Conspiracy looked at the study design, and eventually concluded it was OK and that newspaper articles had inaccurately reported how it was structured.

Sheila said at December 2, 2004 5:00 PM:

Thanks, David, I was just about to go hunting for that info.

Steve Sailer said at December 3, 2004 12:08 AM:

A wise man once told me: "Always tell the truth: It's easier to remember."

Scienter said at December 3, 2004 8:24 AM:

This is the kind of technology that could really reduce medical costs.

I dream of the day when we can bid goodbye to fraudulent insurance claims using lie detection technology like this.

Paul N said at December 3, 2004 9:58 AM:

This study seems really flawed (small sample size, poorly controlled) to me, but besides that:

I think it's unreasonable to expect that any "lie detection" technology will ever be useful in a criminal context. Look, we've seen time and time again that people can convince themselves that lies are true! People believe what they want to be true. How then can a lie detector ever tell the difference?

You may see a "statistically meaningful" detection of lies in the aggregate, but it'll never be good enough to prove something beyond a reasonable doubt for a specific person.

GENEarchy said at December 3, 2004 4:26 PM:

I'm just waiting for the day when technology has the ability to invade most aspects of our private lives. The day is definitely coming, only being a matter of when. With science & tech limitlessly progressing, i think we all know what's coming(eventually).

Fly said at December 4, 2004 11:46 AM:

Paul N.: “I think it's unreasonable to expect that any "lie detection" technology will ever be useful in a criminal context. Look, we've seen time and time again that people can convince themselves that lies are true! People believe what they want to be true. How then can a lie detector ever tell the difference?”

Possibly scientists will be able to analyze brains and cognition as separate components operating at multiple levels. Lower level processes might show evidence of truth even if higher-level thoughts affected by emotion or intention may be distorted. (People aren’t really aware of their low-level thought processes.)

Magnetic fields can be used to temporarily disable selected brain regions. Questioning a person several times with different brain regions disabled might help to determine what really happened.

Stephen Rudy said at January 9, 2006 4:40 PM:

Is fMRI currently used to support polygraph exam results? Where can one go or who can one contact to voluntarily submit to an fMRI to substantiate polygram results?

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