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Applying fMRI to the question of guilt versus innocence – on TV and then in an academic journal…

brainscan2 A press release (2 Nov) heralds the publication of a new study by Professor Sean Spence from the University of Sheffield, who claims the research shows that fMRI “could be used alongside other factors to address questions of guilt versus innocence”. It’s an interesting study on two counts: one, it appears to be the first time that fMRI lie-detection research has been carried out using a real world case (as opposed to contrived experiments), and two, the research was funded by a TV company and featured on a TV documentary earlier this year. The article is currently in press in the journal European Psychiatry (reference below).

The press release gives a summary of the findings:

An academic at the University of Sheffield has used groundbreaking technology to investigate the potential innocence of a woman convicted of poisoning a child in her care. Professor Sean Spence, who has pioneered the use of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to detect lies, carried out groundbreaking experiments on the woman who, despite protesting her innocence, was sentenced to four years in prison. ….Using the technology, Professor Spence examined the woman´s brain activity as she alternately confirmed her account of events and that of her accusers. The tests demonstrated that when she agreed with her accusers´ account of events she activated extensive regions of her frontal lobes and also took significantly longer to respond – these findings have previously been found to be consistent with false or untrue statements.

In the acknowledgements section of the paper the authors reveal that the study “was funded by Quickfire Media in association with Channel Four Television”. The case Spence et al. describe as that of “Woman X” was featured in Channel 4′s Lie Lab series (and if you’re really interested, you can easily identify X in a couple of clicks). Although unusual, this isn’t the first time that research featured on TV has found its way into academic journals: see, for example, Haslam and Reicher’s academic publications based on their controversial televised replication of Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment .

In theory, I am not sure it necessarily matters if a study is done for TV, if it is carried out in an ethical and scientific way, and the subsequent article(s) meet rigorous standards of peer review. Nor does it always matter if the academic research then receives wider publicity as a result. In this case, however, I hope that anyone picking up and reporting further on this story reads the actual paper, in which Spence and his co-authors consider carefully the implications of the study and the caveats that should be applied to the results:

To our knowledge, this is the first case described where fMRI or any other form of functional neuroimaging has been used to study truths and lies derived from a genuine ‘real-life’ scenario, where the events described pertain to a serious forensic case. All the more reason then for us to remain especially cautious while interpreting our findings and to ensure that we make explicit their limitations: the weaknesses of our approach (p.4).

The authors go on to discuss alternative interpretations of their results: Perhaps X had told her story so many times that her responses were automatic? Perhaps the emotive nature of the subject under discussion (poisoning a child) gave rise to the observed pattern of activation? Maybe X used countermeasures (such as moving her head or using cognitive distractions)? Perhaps she “has ‘convinced herself’ of her innocence … she answered sincerely though ‘incorrectly’”? In this case, perhaps the researchers have “merely imaged ‘self-deception’” (p.5)? For each argument, the authors discuss the pros and cons, remaining careful not to claim too much for their results, and pointing out that further empirical enquiry is needed.

These cautions are also echoed in Spence’s comments at the end of the press release:

“This research provides a fresh opportunity for the British legal system as it has the potential to reduce the number of miscarriages of justice. However, it is important to note that, at the moment, this research doesn´t prove that this woman is innocent. Instead, what it clearly demonstrates is that her brain responds as if she were innocent.”


See also :

  • Mind Hacks discusses an article in which Raymond Tallis “laments the rise of ‘neurolaw’ where brain scan evidence is used in court in an attempt to show that the accused was not responsible for their actions”.
  • Deception Blog posts on brain scanning and deception

Abstract below the fold.

Photo credit: killermonkeys, Creative Commons License


‘Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy’ characteristically describes women alleged to have fabricated or induced illnesses in children under their care, purportedly to attract attention. Where conclusive evidence exists the condition’s aetiology remains speculative, where such evidence is lacking diagnosis hinges upon denial of wrong-doing (conduct also compatible with innocence). How might investigators obtain objective evidence of guilt or innocence? Here, we examine the case of a woman convicted of poisoning a child. She served a prison sentence but continues to profess her innocence. Using a modified fMRI protocol (previously published in 2001) we scanned the subject while she affirmed her account of events and that of her accusers. We hypothesized that she would exhibit longer response times in association with greater activation of ventrolateral prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortices when endorsing those statements she believed to be false (i.e., when she ‘lied’). The subject was scanned 4 times at 3 Tesla. Results revealed significantly longer response times and relatively greater activation of ventrolateral prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortices when she endorsed her accusers’ version of events. Hence, while we have not ‘proven’ that this subject is innocent, we demonstrate that her behavioural and functional anatomical parameters behave as if she were. (c) 2007 Elsevier Masson SAS. All rights reserved.

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