Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or MRI, is not a truth serum.
But researchers are saying it’s a top notch lie detector that far surpasses the polygraph in determining whether or not a person is telling a lie.
The polygraph just measures physiological responses to stress – your pulse rate, sweating, irregular breathing – and has largely been discredited as a scientific tool.
The MRI goes straight to the source.
The MRI measures what’s happening in your brain. Researchers are using what’s called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), to watch localized brain activity, to look inside heads and see what your brain does when it lies.
According to Dr. K. Luan Phan, a psychiatrist at the University of Chicago, lying causes changes in your brain that you can see with a functional MRI because lying makes your brain work harder in the pre-frontal cortex, where reasoning occurs.
Guess who’s interested?
MRI lie-detection has already gone commercial. A California company, No Lie MRI says that, for a price (around $10,000), it can identify lies with 90% accuracy. Its website claims that it “provides unbiased methods for the detection of deception and other information stored in the brain,” and that their MRI technology “represents the first and only direct measure of truth verification and lie detection in human history!”
Meanwhile, federal dollars are pouring into this research. According to an article in The Scientist, since September 11, 2001, grants from US agencies, including the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, have “burst open the field.” Jon Gabrieli’s group at Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology has funding from the Central Intelligence Agency. No Lie MRI’s technology is based on the results of Daniel Langleben’s research at the University of Pennsylvania, which was partially funded by the Department of Defense.
How to trick an MRI
Researchers say the only way to trick the MRI is to convince yourself you’re telling the truth. If you really believe something is true, your brain won’t register enough changes to be conclusive.
We all know there are many different kinds of lying: “I love your haircut!” versus “I found the money in a trash heap.” Is telling the truth about whether a card is red or black the same as telling the truth about whether you are a terrorist? So far, researchers have had only willing subjects.
Is this the ultimate invasion of our privacy? Or is it a great new way to identify terrorists and serial killers?
Eleanor Imster has helped write and edit EarthSky since 1995. She was an integral part of the award-winning EarthSky radio series almost since it began until it ended in 2013. Today, as Lead Editor at EarthSky.org, she helps present the science and nature stories and photos you enjoy. She also serves as one of the voices of EarthSky on social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and G+. She and her husband live in Tennessee and have two grown sons.