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Brain Fingerprinting

Article #63 • Written by Alan Bellows

There is a new, non-invasive technology being developed which is able to peer into your brain to discover whether you are familiar with a given phrase, sound, or photo. It is being funded by the CIA, and its proponents claim that it offers 99.9% accuracy. The technique is intended to be used in criminal investigations to discover whether a suspect is familiar with a particular person, such as the face of a murder victim; or a location, such as a photo of a crime scene. It could also be used to detect whether a subject recognized specific names, phrases, etc.

Advocates of brain fingerprinting have struggled to prove its value, and since 9/11 it has had some renewed popularity among researchers, politicians and the media as a potential anti-terrorist screening measure. A suspected terrorist could be shown captured terrorist documents, photos of other terrorists, and other materials in order to gauge recognition. With so much at stake for the suspect, one would hope that the machine's accuracy is as high as its proponents claim.

The device works by monitoring certain brainwaves while images, sounds, and/or phrases are presented to the subject... familiar items will trigger certain brain pathways, while unfamiliar items will trigger others. A headband connected to an Electroencephalography (EEG) machine scans for the brainwaves in question, and in theory, this method will determine whether a suspect had prior knowledge of the event or activity. The method is called "brain fingerprinting," and it aims to be what the lie detector never was... an infallible witness.

Similar to polygraph testing, the machine's operator must establish a reference to use as a baseline for the test. When the test begins, the subject is exposed to a series of familiar and unfamiliar stimuli, and the results are recorded. This will calibrate the machine to the subject's "familiar" and "unfamiliar" brainwave patterns. The subject is then provided with the relevant stimuli, and the machine measures the familiarity response. There is no need for verbal interaction with the subject since the brain's activity is directly monitored.

When we humans encounter something we recognize, our brains emit a particular electrical signal exactly three hundred milliseconds after observing it. This signal is called the P300, and it is the signal that brain fingerprinting largely relies on. There are other signals that can occur before the eight hundred millisecond mark, and technique of reading these is called MERMER: Memory and Encoding Related Multifaceted Electroencephalographic Response. The brain fingerprinting technique is being developed by Dr. Lawrence Farwell.

Currently, a large portion of the scientific community has strong doubts regarding the reliability of brain fingerprinting, believing it to be no more dependable than a classic polygraph test. Several experiments have demonstrated that a disciplined person can be trained to control the EEG response of his or her brain by imagining emotional events as the stimuli are presented, which would potentially allow them to defeat the test. It also appears that the studies which indicated 99.9% accuracy with no false positives were entirely based on hand-selected participants and limited questioning, not on real-world scenarios with unknown suspects.

Some still believe the test to be almost 100% accurate, which is a dangerous notion. No machine is infallible, particularly considering the machines' imperfect operators: humans. A human operator could deliberately or accidentally alter the results of a test to bring about positive or negative results. Consider too that it was humans who chose to call the technique "brain fingerprinting," despite the fact that most brains do not have fingers. Even if the machine proves useful in criminal investigations, there needs to be a reasonable margin for error given the human factor.

In a test almost two years ago, convicted murderer Jimmy Ray Slaughter was subjected to brain fingerprinting (pictured, top), and the test indicated that he was unfamiliar with the crime scene. But brain fingerprinting evidence is not admissible in most courts, and Jimmy Ray was executed by the state of Oklahoma in March of 2005. In another case, the state of Iowa did allow brain fingerprinting evidence to be admitted, and won a retrial for convicted killer Terry Harrington.

Scientists keep hunting for foolproof ways to detect human lies, and some new technologies using fMRI and PET scans are being researched. One day, perhaps, the information will be directly read from the brain like data from a hard drive, and the guilty will be condemned by their own memories. Ah, technology.

Article written by Alan Bellows, published on 30 November 2005. Alan is the founder/designer/head writer/managing editor of Damn Interesting.

Article design by Alan Bellows.
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8 Comments
Marius
Posted 01 December 2005 at 04:30 am

I can imagine any number of ways this device could be fooled. What if the criminal was on drugs at the time of the crime? Might that not change his perceptions of events so that a picture of the crime scene or victim viewed while no longer drugged might not trigger a familiarity response? Or if the test subject were schitzophrenic, or just inattentive? This shows, to me anyway, a fundamental problem when scientists try to apply themselves to real-world situations. They are trained to observe and notice as much as possible. The average person just sort of cruises through the world and would probably not recongnize the person next to them on the bus if they saw them again. This certainly has promise, but I would be very surprised to see it become widely accepted without some major confirmational data.


phazeshifter
Posted 02 December 2005 at 01:49 am

Marius said: "I can imagine any number of ways this device could be fooled. What if the criminal was on drugs at the time of the crime? Might that not change his perceptions of events so that a picture of the crime scene or victim viewed while no longer drugged might not trigger a familiarity response? Or if the test subject were schitzophrenic, or just inattentive? This shows, to me anyway, a fundamental problem when scientists try to apply themselves to real-world situations. They are trained to observe and notice as much as possible. The average person just sort of cruises through the world and would probably not recongnize the person next to them on the bus if they saw them again. This certainly has promise, but I would be very surprised to see it become widely accepted without some major confirmational data."

You bring up very valid points. It seems that there are many bugs yet to be worked out. Who knows though, maybe they're working on them as I type this...


peridot window
Posted 18 June 2006 at 12:05 pm

In contrast, it might also be used to support an insanity plea. If evidence and witnesses point to person A committing a crime but the crime draws no recognition from person A, this may be valid proof (with supporting factors, of course).


Merciless
Posted 08 June 2007 at 09:13 am

This is kinda like that movie with the "pre-cogs." Of course they knew your thoughts before action. Again human error.

What if the individual was put in a room with the images flashing all around. I bet that would trigger some kind of brain transmission. Either that or a seizure.


Helazoid
Posted 16 July 2007 at 05:25 pm

Let me make sure I have this straight. You are suspected of killing your wife, even though you and your buddies were watching the superbowl in a bar. You are then hooked up to this thing, shown a picture of the crime scene, and you are flagged as the culprit because you recognize your wife, the ring she wears, and the Green Bay Packer jersey you got her for her birthday. Lets not forget the 100s of items from around YOUR house that you see every day that lit up the recognition lights. Yep...definitely sounds like they have a great thing going..keep up the good work.

While were at it...lets crack open the fruit machine from a previous DI article and show images from the 'Crying Game' to test for homosexuality as well.


My2Cents
Posted 01 October 2007 at 12:36 pm

Helazoid has a good point but for any case that doesn't involve someone killing their spouse this technology would be very helpful seeing as how the current lie detector has so many flaws. I'm glad to hear that they are working on something else. However, if I find myself in a situation where I need to fool a lie detector I might not be so glad.


BenKinsey
Posted 01 October 2008 at 07:28 am

What about dejavu? What if you think something looks very familiar but in truth you have never seen it before? You might just end up in prison.


Bob Nesbo
Posted 24 October 2008 at 02:33 am

I think this device can easily fall through when you need it to work. I started a new job recently, and I work with people over the phone along the east coast. And one of my fellow new co-workers at this new enterprise said she worked with me at a previous place of employment, physically, in person several times. She went on to recount how I was the one who told her so and so was pregnant, and we discussed a certain unforgettable topic. I remember the pregnancy story, as well as the that big topic along with the places in the office where we discussed these things. But for the life of me, I can't remember this woman. I don't remember her face, I don't remember her being in that room when the discussions occurred. I mean, I could have handed her a signed document as part of work. But to save my own life, I can not even begin to describe this woman, what she looks like or any other jobs she did at the other company. From the context of what she says, I know we met, and I know she is not lying. But if it were the other way around, that I needed a brain fingerprint to show I knew this woman to exonerate myself, well, I would bet $1 million that I would get a negative reading if shown a picture of this woman!


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