In 2007, Time warned us that advances in brain-imaging technology were raising serious ethical concerns (Russo, 2007). The article mentions how advances in our understanding about the mind have led many people to question what limits should be placed on this technology. It gives the example of CEPHOS, a company claiming to perfect a lie detection test using brain scans with a 90% accuracy rate. Two years later, a psychologist hired CEPHOS to conduct this test as part of his defense (Lowenberg, 2010). Although many researchers have expressed serious doubts about the accuracy and the ethics of these kinds of brain-imaging applications, we are living in a world where our thoughts are quickly not remaining our own. We must be careful of the impact of brain-imaging technology on our daily lives.
Research suggests that our thoughts correspond to specific patterns of brain activity, but there is a lot about the human thought that we still don’t understand (Goldstein, 2011). Scientists capture images of brain activity with an fMRI scanner and then they use a computer program to make sense of images they collect. Scientists can now recognize the pattern of brain activity of a person thinking or seeing an object. One study has even demonstrated how similar the patterns of brain activity are between different people. However, human thought involves more complicated patterns of activity than the perception of a simple object.
Despite the limitations of the fMRI, CEPHOS tried to use brain scans to provide expert testimony in a federal court case (Lowenberg, 2010). In 2009, psychologist Dr. Lorne Semrau was charged with defrauding Medicare, a federal crime. To prove he was telling the truth, he underwent a lie detection test conducted by CEPHOS. CEPHOS used an fMRI scanner to compare the activity in the doctor’s brain when he claimed to be lying with the activity when he claimed to be telling the truth. In order to be considered expert testimony, the scans had to be scientifically valid. However, the presiding judge concluded that the fMRI lie detection test did not satisfy all of the necessary criteria for scientific. The judge also cited an article, authored by researchers affiliated with CEPHOS, explaining that the fMRI “is currently not ready to be used in real-world lie detection (Lowenberg, 2010).” Even CEPHOS researchers could not prevent their company from attempting to use brain-imaging technology for applications it has not been proven capable of performing.
This is just one example of the concerns that fMRI scans raise. The case of Dr. Semau involves a defendant who asked for a scan. Time warns of the potential for criminal suspects to be forced to undergo brain scans “like a search warrant for the brain (Russo, 2007).” After all, criminal law allows police to draw blood after a suspected drunk driving accident. Of course, there is no reason to assume that all applications of fMRI scans are designed to encroach on our freedom, but this technology does raise questions that require answers—and soon.
We must encourage the skepticism of the CEPHOS researchers cited by the judge in Dr. Semrau’s case. Otherwise, we risk putting too much trust in technologies that already have an increasingly large impact on our lives, including how we serve justice and protect individual liberty.
Goldstein, E. B. (2011). Cognitive Neuroscience. In Cognitive psychology: Connecting mind, research, and everyday experience (3rd ed., pp. 39-43). Australia: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
Lowenberg, K. (2010, June 10). FMRI Lie Detection Fails Its First Hearing on Reliability [Web log post]. Retrieved September 15, 2015, from http://blogs.law.stanford.edu/lawandbiosciences/2010/06/01/fmri-lie-detection-fails-its-first-hearing-on-reliability/
Russo, F. (2007, January 29). The Brain: Who Should Read Your Mind? Retrieved September 15, 2015, from http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1580378-2,00.html