The quest for an effective lie detector has continued for centuries, if not millennia. Unfortunately, current polygraph technology doesn’t work much better than throwing an accused witch in a river to see if she sinks. For the last few years, there has been quite a bit of interest in using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) as an effective, if not perfect, method to detect deception.

An article in WIRED by Steve Silberman chronicles his experience inside Columbia University researcher Joy Hirsch’s fMRI machine and describes the commercialization of the technology.

Paul Root Wolpe, a senior fellow at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, tracks the development of lie-detection technologies. He calls the accelerated advances in fMRI “a textbook example of how something can be pushed forward by the convergence of basic science, the government directing research through funding, and special interests who desire a particular technology…”

To eliminate one major source of polygraph error – the subjectivity of the human examiner – Langleben and his colleagues developed pattern-recognition algorithms that identify deception in individual subjects by comparing their brain scans with those in a database of known liars. In 2005, both Langleben’s lab and a DoDPI-funded team led by Andrew Kozel at the Medical University of South Carolina announced that their algorithms had been able to reliably identify lies.

By the end of 2006, two companies, No Lie MRI and Cephos, will bring fMRI’s ability to detect deception to market. Both startups originated in the world of medical diagnostics. Cephos founder Steven Laken helped develop the first commercial DNA test for colorectal cancer. “FMRI lie detection is where DNA diagnostics were 10 or 15 years ago,” he says. “The biggest challenge is that this is new to a lot of different groups of people. You have to get lawyers and district attorneys to understand this isn’t a polygraph. I view it as no different than developing a diagnostic test.” [From WIRED: Don’t Even Think About Lying]

I think one positive aspect of the lie-detection work is that some findings will have applicability to neuromarketing research as well. Of course, market research isn’t just about telling the truth – consumers may not even understand why they make some decisions, or may describe their actions or intentions incorrectly but with no intent to deceive. Still, having a lot of commercial, academic, and governmental fMRI brain scan research going on for lie detection purposes is bound to produce a better understanding of how our brains work and how to interpret the often ambiguous brain activity observed in the scans.

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