Scientists are using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to reconstruct images seen by people and read their thoughts. This technology, which is relatively new compared to x-ray imaging techniques, uses the nuclear spin of hydrogen nuclei to construct an image. This makes the technology especially well suited to the imaging of soft tissues, and if you happen to know someone who has received an MRI it was mostly likely for a tumor or joint damage.
fMRI is related to traditional MRI, but provides less information about structure and instead focuses on what researchers refer to as the BOLD signal. BOLD stands for blood-oxygen-level-dependence, and what that means is that the scan is looking at what areas of your brain are using oxygen. Basically, it shows which areas of your brain are being used to process information. Sound confusing? Here is an image from an fMRI study I participated in several years ago; it is showing which areas of my brain were activated when a citrus scent was applied to my nose.
The New Polygraph?
Now scientists are using this same technology to try and read peoples’ minds. It sounds a bit dramatic at first, but really is only another tool that’s not all that much different from a polygraph. It is not the type of device that will just tell us flat out whether or not someone is lying.
What researchers have done are experiments where subjects are shown a card. Some of the subjects are asked to lie about their answers while the others tell the truth. The scientists then look at the different regions of the brain that are activated between the liars and the truth tellers. After this calibration run, different subjects are put through the same experiment, but the scientists don’t know beforehand who the liars are and who the truth tellers are. Various studies are showing accuracies between 80-90%. Although these claims are much better than the current polygraph technology, it still requires vetting by the MRI community to confirm these claims. Research into this field is also being met with moral and legal reservations.
The Moral and Legal Implications
There are definitely concerns being raised over the morality of these studies. Researchers involved in this line of work are currently receiving millions of dollars in funding from the federal government and interested corporations. Some of these companies are already using these types of experiments to determine the effectiveness of their advertising campaigns, Viacom the owners of MTV and Nickelodeon being one of them.
Civil libertarians worry that this technology could eventually undermine the 5th Amendment’s right not to self incriminate. Another argument is that the jury should be the final arbiters determining the truth and not some technology. By removing the human component of trials and replacing it with a biometric, the legal system would be forever changed and not necessarily in a good way. No Lie MRI, a company that is currently using fMRI technology to this end, has already tried submitting this type of evidence to courts. So far none of the courts have allowed their work to be submissible as evidence.
Another concern is the potential to exploit the technology by using it on unsuspecting people. Right now, this is not feasible. MRI machines use a very large superconducting magnet that is cooled to just tenths of a degree above absolute zero. They weigh several tons and require ground floor installation on reinforced concrete. In order to take the image, your head has to be inserted into the bore of the magnet. If a remote brain imaging technology were ever developed, it certainly won’t be based on MRI.
Bio: Alexis Bonari is currently a resident blogger at College Scholarships, where recently she’s been researching scholarships for agricultural students as well as interest on student loans. Whenever this WAHM gets some free time she enjoys doing yoga, cooking with the freshest organic in-season fare, and practicing the art of coupon clipping.