Picture this: your boss is threatening to fire you because he thinks you stole company property. He doesn't believe your denials. Your lawyer suggests you deny it one more time, in a brain scanner that will show you're telling the truth.

Wacky? Science fiction? It might happen this summer.

Just the other day I lay flat on my back as a scanner probed the tiniest crevices of my brain and a computer screen asked, "Did you take the watch?"


And two outfits called Cephos Corp. and No Lie MRI Inc. say they'll start offering brain scans for lie detection later this year.

"I'd use it tomorrow in virtually every criminal and civil case on my desk" to check the truthfulness of clients, said US attorney Robert Shapiro, best known for defending O.J. Simpson against murder charges.

Shapiro serves as an adviser to entrepreneur Steven Laken and has a financial interest in Cephos, which Laken founded to commercialise the brain-scanning work at the Medical University of South Carolina. That's where I got scanned.


The technology is called functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. It's a standard tool for studying the brain, but research into using it to detect lies is still in its early stages. Nobody really knows yet whether it will prove more accurate than polygraphs, which measure things like blood pressure and breathing rate to look for emotional signals of lying.
But advocates for fMRI say it has the potential to be more accurate, because it zeros in on the source of lying, the brain, rather than using indirect measures. So it may someday provide lawyers with something polygraphs can't: legal evidence of truth-telling that's widely admissible in court. (Courts generally regard polygraph results as unreliable.)

The experiment

A study by Dr Mark George, neurologist and psychiatrist, and colleagues said the technology spotted lies in 28 out of 31 volunteers. I joined an extension of that study.

That's why I found myself lying in George's fMRI scanner, focused on questions popping up on a computer screen.
Some were easy: Am I awake, is it 2004, do I like movies? Others were a little more challenging: Have I ever cheated on taxes, or gossiped, or deceived a loved one? As instructed, I answered them all truthfully, pushing the "Yes" button with my thumb or the "No" button with my index finger.

Then, there it was: "Did you remove a watch from the drawer?"

Hiding the truth

Just a half-hour or so before, in an adjacent room, I'd been told to remove either a watch or a ring from a drawer and slip it into a locker. This was the mock crime the study used. So I took the watch. As I lay in the scanner I remembered seizing its gold metal band and nestling it into the locker.

So, the computer was asking, did I take the watch?

No, I replied with a jab of my finger. I didn't steal nuthin'. I lied again and again when asked if I'd taken the watch, but replied truthfully when asked the same questions about the ring.


It would be a different computer's job to figure out which I was lying about, the watch or the ring. It would compare the way my brain acted when I responded to those questions versus what my brain did when I responded to routine questions truthfully. Whichever looked more different from the "truthful" brain activity would be considered the signature of deceit.

160 questions

The computer asked me 160 questions over the course of 16 minutes ? actually, it was 80 questions two times apiece. The verdict would take a few days to produce, since it required a lot of data analysis.

It didn't take any jury to find the truth in my case.

"We nabbed ya," George said after sending me the results of my scan. "It wasn't a close call." I was ratted out by the three parts of my brain the technique targets. They'd become more active when I lied about taking the watch than when I truthfully denied taking the ring.

Those areas are involved in juggling the demands of doing several things at once, in thinking about oneself, and in stopping oneself from making a natural response ? all things the brain apparently does when it pulls back from blurting the truth and works up a whopper instead, George said.