Brain scanning: Technology to read minds

By Nicole Barratt

Project leader Professor Robin Palmer, University of Canterbury's director of Clinical Legal Studies. Photo / Supplied
Project leader Professor Robin Palmer, University of Canterbury's director of Clinical Legal Studies. Photo / Supplied

Brain scanning that allows us to look into the minds of criminals exists, but is yet to gain widespread acceptance.

The University of Canterbury is leading a New Zealand Law Foundation funded project to investigate the forensic potential of brain scanning technology.

'The Brain Does Not Lie: an investigation into the scientific validity and legal application of Forensic Brain Scan Analysis', will explore brain-scanning technology pioneered in the United States by Professor Lawrence Farwell.

The potential efficacy of this relatively new forensic tool, known as Forensic Brain Scan Analysis (FBSA), is being explored this year by the UC Law School Te Kura Ture, in conjunction with the Brain Research Institute, Christchurch, and partners at Otago and Massey universities.

Being able to read brainwaves could revolutionise the way crimes are solved.

FBSA would enable police to "scan the minds of suspects" to find out whether they had critical knowledge relating to a serious crime.

The technology uses electroencephalography (EEG) to measure brainwave responses, combined with additional features in a so-called MERMER test (memory and encoding related multifaceted electroencephalographic response).

It involves a subject being fitted with a headband containing electronic sensors that detect brainwaves. They are then shown various stimuli on a computer monitor, including words, phrases, diagrams, pictures or photographs that randomly test for recognition of three types of information: irrelevant, target and probe.

Project leader Professor Robin Palmer, University of Canterbury's director of Clinical Legal Studies, said FBSA had much more potential as a forensic tool than traditional lie detectors, or polygraphs.

"This is not a lie detector, it is a knowledge detector. If this science checks out, and it has a high accuracy rate for reading brainwave response to stimuli, then it could provide effective proof of knowledge."

Professor Palmer said the results of various studies in the United States are extremely promising and indicate a very high level of accuracy.

"This particular test is clear cut in that if you have knowledge of a particular item of information it will show up as a wave with a bump on it. If you don't, it will show up as a wave with a dip in it."

The project had been discussed in meetings with police representatives who had expressed their support and cooperation.

If verified, FBSA could not only be used for crime investigation, but also in civil litigation, employment disputes and other ancillary applications.

"If we can make crime detection more accurate and resolve employment disputes more easily, it helps everybody," the professor said.

The Brain Does Not Lie project will begin with an investigation of the procedures developed for FBSA, with Professor Palmer leading a team to Seattle in June to meet Professor Farwell.

Professor Palmer said their starting point was to see if the science behind FBSA was verifiably reliable.

University of Canterbury Professor Jeremy Finn said there were two significant stages involved in the project: "First we need to show that it is extraordinarily reliable, then we can ask: how exactly is this best used?"

Research currently underway in the States is determining the reliability of the technology.

There had been discussions with defensive lawyers, and off-the-record testing was being performed.

"What is currently envisaged, is that [the testing] would be done with a person's consent, which gets rid a of great deal of ethical implications It would put us in an unpleasant legal space if it was made compulsory," Professor Finn said.

He said the problem with lie detectors was that they were not completely reliable, and if they could actually show this technology worked, a lot of cases wouldn't go to court.

The professors envisage that the process of FBSA would involve a set of 70 questions being asked that would take half an hour to one hour to complete.

The actual set up wouldn't take too long.

Cost was yet to be determined, it would depend on the first stages of their research determining the reliability of the technology.

Whether FBSA would be implemented in New Zealand relied on the research currently taking place in the States.

The next step was to replicate the MERMER test through a pilot programme, scheduled for December.

How does a Forensic Brain Scan Analysis work?

• It is not a lie detector, it is a knowledge detector.

• The technology uses electroencephalography (EEG) to measure brainwave responses.

• It is combined with additional features in a so-called MERMER test (memory and encoding related multifaceted electroencephalographic response).

• It involves a subject being fitted with a headband containing electronic sensors that detect brainwaves.

• The subject is shown various stimuli on a computer monitor that randomly test for recognition of three types of information: irrelevant, target and probe.

• If the subject has knowledge of a particular item of information it will show up as a wave with a bump on it. If they don't, it will show up as a wave with a dip in it.

- NZ Herald

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