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Functional MRI to Serve as a Lie Detector: Hit or Miss

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In the article written by Patrick Keefe, ‘Can a Brain Scan Tell if You’re Lying?’, Keefe writes about experts that side with fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and their ability to be used as a lie detector test. The lie detector test would be used in court cases to determine if the offender is guilty or innocent in the crime that was committed. With fMRI still being a work in progress with many more studies needed to be done to be able to effectively and safely use this tool in the court room, I deem this technique inadmissible. FMRI brain scanning is a relatively new tool in forensic science that still needs many questions resolved, and the overall scan itself is a very tedious process for the person receiving the scan. More about fMRI and what it entitles will be covered in the following paragraphs as well as the upside to using fMRI as evidence in the criminal court system.

As previously said before, fMRI is a new technique that is being introduced into the court room and with little to no real-world testing or studies that have been performed, there is no certainty that fMRI will work in a real-world application. So far, they have tested fMRI to see if it is reliable on participants that are instructed to lie but this raises some concern. The question which arises when this is brought up is: is this indeed reliable? This can produce a similar outcome to the Hawthorne effect because the participants are aware that they are indeed participants, and they are being told to lie to the experimenters when asked questions while undergoing the fMRI lie detection test. The real-world people that would actually undergo a test like this one are not lying because they are being directed to lie by an experimenter, but moreover as a result of an action that led them to go to prison or jail and as result have to attend a court trial where they are being convicted. The difference between the two is that one is being forced to lie knowingly which can have an outcome of illegitimate results and the other one is doing so willingly without someone impacting their actions. The person that is being instructed to lie is processing what they are being told and one of the tasks is to lie. This could produce results that are not accurate because they already know that they will have to lie and this could have a potential effect on the brain psychologically. This is where a similar effect of the Hawthorne effect arises, there could be an alteration of behavior between the person who would be undergoing this test in a real-world event versus a person who is doing so for the sake of an experiment and its outcome. This could possibly result in psychological changes between the two candidates that would both be taking the fMRI test. So how exactly would obtaining evidence work to be able to use fMRI one day in the future? As professor Greely stated in the article, it is not possible to detain people just to experiment on them to see whether or not the fMRI truly works. It is impractical to gather real-world data without breaking ethical codes or having strict experimental studies. Nonetheless, these studies would still yield questioning results as every mind is truly unique in its own way. Meaning, these distinctive results may vary from person to person depending if they had or currently have a mental illness or any mental differences from other participants, but we will talk about this a bit later on.

On another hand, another tool that is used as a lie detector would be the polygraph test. This test measures a person’s heart rate, breathing, and electrical skin conductivity while the person administering the polygraph test asks the participant questions. Because the participant is hooked up to a machine that translates the physiological results into a graph, the person administering the polygraph would be able to note the differences between a lie and the truth solely based on the graphical differences. This technique was used in the court room to deem whether a person was guilty or not guilty of crimes that he/she were prosecuted for. In most states, this lie detection test is now unused and inadmissible in court because of its lack of validity. Although it is no longer used in court cases it still remains commonly used throughout jobs and as stated in the article, it also is used in background checks that are ran by the government. Even though they are used in areas of employment and used by the government in various ways, polygraph tests could be outsmarted, and someone could learn to control their physiological responses while lying. The polygraph test would not capture the responses because the heart beat would not alter, perspiring would be absent, and so on. Something similar as seen in the polygraph test could happen to the fMRI lie detection test. If we do not conduct enough research into this tool that we could possibly access in the court room, then the chance of convicting someone incorrectly arises. Although, convicting someone incorrectly does happen due to evidence being incorrect or mishandled, or for any other reason, it is imperative that accuracy for the fMRI lie detection test be very low. An important factor to take into consideration with fMRI are mental illnesses among people.

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Going back to the topic of mental illnesses, how exactly would fMRI play out with people that suffer from mental illnesses? There are a wide range of mental illnesses and they are all different in their own way and each of them affect individuals more or less differently than other illnesses. This is a very important topic that must be discussed before or if fMRI would even be used in the court room. Among mental illnesses, how would the people that have had a mental illness in the past but no longer suffer from that illness fit into this fMRI lie detection test, compared to someone psychologically healthy? As talked about in the article, another implication for fMRI would be the people that have had previous head injuries or people suffering from strokes. The people that have suffered head injuries, mental illness(es), or people that have suffered strokes would not be able to receive this same brain scan and expect the same outcome. Certain parts of their brain work differently and that could have an impact on the fMRI while conducting the lie detecting test. A multitude of studies need to be performed for fMRI lie detection tests to be legitimate because it is illogical to think that a psychologically healthy person will yield the same results as a person that suffers from a mental illness. Switching shifts, another important factor that the article brings up is movement during the scan. The slightest of head movement can throw the data off resulting in poor results. This is not convenient for the person taking the brain scan because not only is the scan already being performed in a closed enclosure which could cause the person to feel uncomfortable in the confined space, but they cannot move their head even the slightest bit. This could be rather uncomfortable for many people as this is not customary to the majority of people. If the person did move their head, this can result in swayed results which could lead to a bigger problem such as false data. This data, if used, can result in a more serious issue because it is being utilized in a trial to prove innocence or guilt. Another implication that could arise with head movement ties with mental illness. If the person receiving the scan suffers from a mental illness that causes involuntary movements such as an essential tremor which is an involuntary movement of (usually) the head, then what would be the options for this person involving the fMRI? They would most likely not be able to participate in the brain scan and be ruled out as a participant. Along this issue, the article states that fMRI dealing with the court system currently has no protocols. Protocols are a very important part of the procedures and rules that would entitle functional MRI are critical. Although fMRI is not completely and thoroughly put together, protocols are nonetheless necessary and should be used. Protocols should be established to not only make things easier for the person undergoing the scan but also the person conducting the scan. It would be much easier to abide by a certain protocol that everyone has to follow rather than figuring everything out case by case. This also reduces the chance of errors in scans and procedures as well. It reduces errors because if one is following a protocol or guideline, there is little room to make errors. The person performing the scan must follow the protocol and not do whatever comes to mind. Dr. Daniel Langleben, a researcher for lie detection, mentioned in the article that something very controversial about functional MRI was that the people conducting the scans are literally looking into the someone’s brain. People might find this unpleasant because the people conducting the scans, and the people that would attend the court trial would be able to see inside the person’s brain and what their brain activity looks like. This might come off as intruding in the defendant’s life and as an invasion of privacy, the defendant may not want to participate in this type of lie detection test and instead turn away from a test like this one. On another note, according to the article, a researcher claims that the simple fact that the defendant wants to take the functional MRI test holds some weight in terms of being innocent. I do not agree with his thought process as I do not believe that the simple fact that a person wants to take the fMRI test to prove their innocence means that they are more than likely innocent. If anything, I feel as if this thought process would lead to errors. If one is thinking that the defendant is more than likely innocent, you may involuntarily change minor things in the experiment or unknowingly rephrase questions because you strongly believe they are innocent.

There are some positive attributes to the functional MRI tool, and the brain scan as a whole would be a big step in science and a great accomplishment not only for science and technology, but for law as well. To be able to use a tool that measures brain activity and blood flow and use this to help the court system determine if a defendant is guilty or innocent is remarkable. A great feature that was mentioned in the article that functional MRI has is that you cannot learn or fake brain activity. You cannot teach your brain to have more blood flow in a certain area of your brain. This is a great feature because it ensures that one cannot manipulate or alter the results unlike the polygraph test. As mentioned above, with the polygraph test it measures physiological changes such as heart rate, perspiration, blood pressure, skin conductivity, etc and one can control these factors if learned. But something one cannot do is control where your blood flow in the brain is directed to. Although functional MRI has many great features, there is still a lot of research to be done in various areas such as mental illness. There are also a lot of complications with using functional MRI’s that do not all have answers to them.

In conclusion, I strongly believe that fMRI should not be used in the future because there are too many implications that get in the middle of fMRI working properly in the court room. There is little to no real-world research that could be used or applied to this relatively new tool that looks promising. Although, using fMRI as evidence for a court case sounds propitious, there are more losses than gains in my perspective. According to the article, the current experiments that have been conducted were by people that were instructed to lie which could have impacted their train of thought and thus, possibly causing psychological changes in the way they think or perceive a certain statement or thought. It is also a very complicated matter when it comes to people with mental illnesses taking this fMRI scan as a lie detector because their brains can be structurally and constituently different compared to a healthy person’s brain. There is also the concern of not moving one’s head while the scan is being performed because it can cause poor results which can lead to swayed results. Another issue that arises are ethical concerns. The question of whether it is morally and ethically okay to look into someone’s brain and see their brain activity comes up. Not everyone would agree to undergo this brain scan, but that does not imply that they are necessarily guilty. Likewise, a defendant going through with the scan does not imply that they are more than likely innocent. In conclusion, the article did state functional MRI can have a hopeful future with a lot more research, but even though there are some upsides to this tool, I do not believe the cons outweigh the pros and I believe that functional MRI will not provide a reliable means of lie detection.

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Functional MRI to Serve as a Lie Detector: Hit or Miss. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 6, 2023, from
“Functional MRI to Serve as a Lie Detector: Hit or Miss.” Edubirdie, 01 Sept. 2022,
Functional MRI to Serve as a Lie Detector: Hit or Miss. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 6 Dec. 2023].
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