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Can fMRI Really Tell if You're Lying?

Publication Date: 
August 13, 2008
Source: 
Scientific American
Author: 
Gary Stix

Henry T. "Hank" Greely is quoted in a Scientific American article that questions whether fMRIs can really detect if a person is lying or not. A major review article by Greely and Illes published in the American Journal of Law and Medicine is referenced:

A major review article last year in the American Journal of Law and Medicine by Henry T. Greely of Stanford University and Judy Illes, now at the University of British Columbia, explores the deficiencies of existing research and what may be needed to move the technology forward. The two scholars found that lie detection studies conducted so far (still less than 20 in all) failed to prove that fMRI is “effective as a lie detector in the real world at any accuracy level.”

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But until formal clinical trials prove that the machines meet safety and effectiveness criteria, Greely and Illes have called for a ban on nonresearch uses. Trials envisaged for regulatory approval hint at the technical challenges. Actors, professional poker players and sociopaths would be compared against average Joes. The devout would go in the scanner after nonbelievers. Testing would take into account social setting. White lies—“no, dinner really was fantastic”—would have to be compared against untruths about sexual peccadilloes to ensure that the brain reacts identically.

The potential for abuse prompts caution. “The danger is that people’s lives can be changed in bad ways because of mistakes in the technology,” Greely says. “The danger for the science is that it gets a black eye because of this very high profile use of neuroimaging that goes wrong.” Considering the long and controversial history of the polygraph, gradualism may be the wisest course to follow for a new diagnostic that probes an essential quality governing social interaction.