EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Saturday, February 9, 2008

To Tell The Truth, Take 2: Researchers Claim 100% Accuracy In fMRI Studies

Earlier, I posted about research being conducted by a project launched by the John D. and Catherine T. Macarthur Foundation about how breakthroughs in neuroscience can be used in the courtroom.  As I noted, the most interesting part of an article reporting on the project were claims by at least 2 companies that they could use a type of brain scan called a fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to detect lies with greater accuracy than a polygraph.  I contended that if such claims led to fMRIs being admissible in court as lie detection tools, it would completely overhaul the current legal landscape under which polygraph results are generally inadmissible.  New research suggests that such a day may be closer than anyone thought.

First, let's look at how the fMRI works:  "Inside the machine is a magnet field 60,000 times the strength of gravity, equipped with special software that not only scans, but analyzes, the brain, four millimeters at a time. It looks for signs of lying when the person is confronted with some fairly simple questions." 

University of Las Vegas Associate Professor Phillip Patton is two months into a research project on whether the fMRI will one day be a foolproof lie detector.  According to Patton, "We showed [participants] a series of cards, and we asked them if that was their card that we handed them previously. One card they were supposed to tell the truth about, the other, they were supposed to lie about."  Patton has claimed that in all of the 20 studies he conducted, he was able to predict the truth based on "activation," under the theory that lying increases blood flow to key areas of the frontal lobe of the brain.  According to Patton, "We can see the part of the brain that is stopping the truth from coming out. We can see the other part of the brain that is constructing a lie."

University of Nevada, Reno Professor Craig Kluman cautions that there hasn't been nearly enough testing on the device to establish its accuracy.  He also notes that the device could be abused by law enforcement and that it is potentially violative of the right to privacy.  However, Joel Huizenga, president of a California company called No Lie MRI, claims that the fMRI will eventually be admissible in court, just like DNA evidence.  In the meantime, he is already charging $5,000 to $10,000 to take the fMRI test, with most clients being husbands and wives looking to prove their fidelity.

Personally, I side more with Professor Kluman as the test seems a bit too much like the precogs in Philip K. Dick's short story "Minority Report" (and Steven Spielberg's inferior movie of the same name).  But it will certainly be interesting to see the degree to which the brain scan will become accepted in the scientific, law enforcement, and judicial communities.



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