Brain scans: an end to lying?

Edward Willett @ 17-09-2008

FMRI This is one of the most science fictional sounding news stories to surface in the past few days. From the New York Times:

India has become the first country to convict someone of a crime relying on evidence from this controversial machine: a brain scanner that produces images of the human mind in action and is said to reveal signs that a suspect remembers details of the crime in question.

For years, scientists have peered into the brain and sought to identify deception. They have shot infrared beams through liars’ heads, placed them in giant magnetic resonance imaging machines and used scanners to track their eyeballs. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States has plowed money into brain-based lie detection in the hope of producing more fruitful counterterrorism investigations.

The technologies, generally regarded as promising but unproved, have yet to be widely accepted as evidence — except in India, where in recent years judges have begun to admit brain scans. But it was only in June, in a murder case in Pune, in Maharashtra State, that a judge explicitly cited a scan as proof that the suspect’s brain held “experiential knowledge” about the crime that only the killer could possess, sentencing her to life in prison.

Psychologists and neuroscientists in the United States, which has been at the forefront of brain-based lie detection, variously called India’s application of the technology to legal cases “fascinating,” “ridiculous,” “chilling” and “unconscionable.” (While attempts have been made in the United States to introduce findings of similar tests into court cases, these generally have been by defense lawyers trying to show the mental impairment of the accused, not by prosecutors trying to convict.)

If the technology actually works, it holds obvious promise in law enforcement and security efforts. Polygraph tests are notoriously unreliable, measuring anxiety rather than truth-telling, and so called “truth serum” just makes people babble. But:

After passing an 18-page promotional dossier about the BEOS test to a few of his colleagues, Michael S. Gazzaniga, a neuroscientist and director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said: “Well, the experts all agree. This work is shaky at best.”

Even if brain-scan lie-detection technology doesn’t work as advertised yet, though, that doesn’t mean it won’t work in the future, raising any number of issues that will vary from country to country depending on each nation’s particular legal system.

And if it becomes well established? Then those tempted to break the law could literally be warned, “Don’t even think about it.”

(Image: Wikimedia Commons.)

[tags]brain,security,law enforcement,neuroscience[/tags]

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One Response to “Brain scans: an end to lying?”

  1. Paul Raven says:

    This is, quite frankly, terrifying. The potential for abuse by any government leading toward totalitarianism is immense. I’m tempted to suggest that if there’s insufficient evidence to convict without this sort of test, we’re better off letting a few slip the net rather than relying on the very primitive understandings we have of how the brain operates as a biological consciousness machine.