Brain on Fire

The fMRI machine scans the brain of Style writer Joel Garreau as he is asked questions.
The fMRI machine scans the brain of Style writer Joel Garreau as he is asked questions. (Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)

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By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 30, 2006

The Siemens Magnetom Trio at the University of Pennsylvania is a 10-foot-tall, 14-ton "functional magnetic resonance imaging" machine -- fMRI, for short. It promises to be the most formidable lie detector ever built. By peering directly into our brains, its keepers aim to set a new gold standard for the recognition of honesty in everyone from politicians to criminals to lovers.

The check's in the mail.

That was wonderful.

I'm from Washington and I'm here to help you.

In the pipeline are several cheaper, faster, easier-to-use brain-examining technologies, all intended as major improvements on the unreliable chicken-scratching polygraph we use now. Some seem to identify mental preparations for telling a lie even before the liar opens his mouth -- verging on mind-reading. Another is meant to work from across the room, even if you do not wish to cooperate. Think of it as the "mental detector" at your airport screening, and not without good reason. Much of this research is being funded by the military as part of the anti-terror juggernaut.

You're chambered into this dimly lit tunnel of truth like a shell into a shotgun. First you are instructed to twist plugs far into your ears. Then you lie on a gurney narrower than a stretcher. A woman in a lab coat slides a helmet over your head. It is not really like a Hannibal Lecter mask, although the researchers like to make that joke. Your nose barely clears the equipment, your eyes can only look up, and your head is cradled to discourage movement.

Into your hands the researchers place a box with two buttons. The left one, when punched, signifies a "yes" response to questions. The right one means "no." When they slide you into the bore, it is barely wide enough for your shoulders. To your hip they've taped a bulb that you are supposed to squeeze if you have a panic attack, because there is the possibility that no one will hear you scream -- when the machine goes to work, it pounds like a high-frequency jackhammer, except when it shrieks like the klaxon on a submarine when somebody shouts "Dive! Dive!"

All of this in the service of making every atom in your brain align in the same direction to banish lies forever. A seductive thought. Especially if you believe, as does Ruben C. Gur, director of the Brain Behavior Center at Penn, that "the brain is the soul."

To get this far into a quest for the future of truth, you've had to answer hundreds of medical questions. One of them is whether you suffer from anxiety.

The Profit Motive

Sixteen hundred years ago, Saint Augustine defined lying as having one thing in one's heart, and uttering another.

Two U.S. companies are for the first time gearing up to offer brain scans meant to explore exactly such conflict for anyone with several hundred dollars and a burning desire to -- like The Shadow -- know what evil lurks in the hearts of men.

This commercialization is derided by many researchers as premature. It is not yet clear, they say, how well this technology identifies different kinds of lies, or how well it works across a great array of people, or how well it stands up to countermeasures.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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