RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Yesterday on this program we told you about the problems facing the polygraph. It's often thought off as a lie detector, but it's not very reliable in that role. Today we look at a high-tech alternative. Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania, using a special MRI machine, think they have discovered a way to track the brain as it makes the decision to be untruthful.
In the second story in our series on deception, NPR's Dina Temple-Raston reports.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON: Daniel Langleben is a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, and he is the man behind what might become a revolution in lie detection. He's been able to track a lie as it is formed in the brain. As he sees it, the brain has to make a decision to hide the truth. And using Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines and a special computer program he is actually taking pictures of the process.
Dr. DANIEL LANGLEBEN (Psychiatrist and Neuroscientist, University of Pennsylvania): The key point is that you need to exercise a system that is in charge of regulating and controlling your behavior when you lie more than when you just say the truth. That's what it looks like.
TEMPLE-RASTON: What you can see on the MRI is more blood flow in certain parts of the brain. And some experts say identifying that maybe the first step in more scientific lie detection.
(Soundbite of a functional MRI machine)
TEMPLE-RASTON: I'm standing with Langleben in the functional MRI room in the basement of the university hospital. The room looks like something computer geeks would build in their basement. There are racks with computers and flat screens, and wires hanging from the ceiling, and lots of noise.
(Soundbite of MRI machine)
TEMPLE-RASTON: That the sound of the functional MRI running. Essentially it is an enormous donut-shaped magnet that scientists like Langleben have been using to make certain molecules in the brain resonate. Then they use a computer to capture those brain images in real time.
The day I visited Langleben, a subject had been pushed in to the MRI and was asked to hit a button every time he saw a picture he's seen before.
(Soundbite of MRI machine)
Dr. LANGLEBEN: See those little lights on sides? Now nothing is lighting up, but if you press the button it would light.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Langleben and I watched the screen, waiting for a light to show his response.
Dr. LANGLEBEN: (Unintelligible).
TEMPLE-RASTON: What makes the functional MRI machine so special is that it synchronizes images of the brain with the specific actions associated with them. That pinpoint accuracy has helped Langleben come to the conclusion that lying increases blood flow in certain parts of the brain. He says that's because lies aren't created in thin air. Instead, he believes your brain has to think of the truth and then make a decision in the sense to do the opposite.
If you were instructed to say the sky is green, Langleben believes your brain thinks about the sky's true color - blue - first. That process shows up on the functional MRI scan. This is all high-minded scientific research. It took Joel Huizenga, the president of a company called No Lie, to turn Langleben's ideas into a business. He sums up his company's service this way.
Mr. JOEL HUIZENGA (President, No Lie MRI): What we are able to do is to look inside people's brains and verify that they are telling the truth.
TEMPLE-RASTON: If that were true, why would you need to turn the screws on the suspect? You could theoretically just put him in an MRI machine and find out for sure he's lying.
Some critics say the technology just isn't there. Among other things, the functional MRI requires a willing subject who will lie still and wants to be imaged. And at this point, Joe Huizenga says people who fall into that category seemed to be interested I just one thing - and it may not surprise you. It's all about sex.
Mr. HUIZENGA: We've had a huge number of people contact us in regards to sexuality. You know, I am being faithful to my partner, but he doesn't believe me. That's a common complaint.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Huizenga says No Lie has received literally hundreds of requests from people in relationships who want to pay $10,000 for an MRI scan that proves their fidelity.
This wasn't what Huizenga had envisioned when he put together a business plan. He thought No Lie would attract people like Harvey Nathan, a South Carolina businessman who was accused of burning down his own deli to collect the insurance money.
Mr. HARVEY NATHAN (Businessman, South Carolina): I thought the test would prove one way or another conclusively that I was either lying and had in fact arranged the fire, or it would show that I in fact did not, that I had nothing to do with it, and it would clear my name.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Harvey Nathan flew to California to climb into the No Lie MRI last year and answered questions about the fire. The scan indicated that he wasn't lying. Nathan had passed. Now he's planning to take two more MRIs and then go for a polygraph as a fourth test, which together he believes proves his innocence beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Mr. NATHAN: Once that was done, then I had no problems walking into a court and saying, with all of this, how can it be doubted?
TEMPLE-RASTON: It should come as no surprise that government agencies are interested in this MRI technology as well. Imagine if the FBI or the CIA had a test that could say definitively if someone was lying. Imagine not just how that could help uncover spies but also how it could be used with terrorists and common criminals. Huizenga for his part says No Lie wants to stick to exoneration business.
Mr. HUIZENGA: We just want to test individuals that want to be tested. We want to test them in areas that they want to be tested, and then we give the answer to the individuals. And so if the government agencies kind of want to play that game, we're more than willing to do testing for them. But what we see is that the government agencies would rather be in complete control of the things they do.
TEMPLE-RASTON: The functional MRI isn't perfect. The machine is expensive and squirrely. One swallow, one tightening of the muscles in your neck can throw off the whole test. Another problem: the functional MRI can't identify people who actually believe the lies they are telling. And there are ethical questions too. Companies like No Lie are selling a service not medicine.
Paul Root Wolpe, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania. He says that presents a problem too.
Dr. PAUL ROOT WOLPE (Bioethicist, University of Pennsylvania): What happens if No Lie MRI or some other company offering these images someway finds a brain tumor? They are a medical institution. They don't have the resources to take care of that. That's something that needs to be carefully thought out before any of these kinds of technologies are used in the public.
TEMPLE-RASTON: That's the next step. So far, functional MRI has largely been used on undergraduates. It hasn't been tested on criminals or con men, or even good poker players, so it's unclear whether the technology would work on everyone.
Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, Washington.
MONTAGNE: One man, Mark Frank, at the University of Buffalo has found a way to isolate involuntary movements in the face that betray fear, distrust and other emotions related to lying.
Dr. MARK FRANK (Communication, University of Buffalo): They're both very subtle, they're very quick, and if you don't know where to look, you're not going to see them.
MONTAGNE: We conclude our series on deception tomorrow with a look at a system of lie detection that is as plain as the nose on your face. You can trace the history of the modern polygraph - subject of our first report - at npr.org.