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Deception detectors set to rival Wonder Woman’s rope


Women are nicer than men. I’m sure most people will agree. Of course there are the nasty, heartless, scheming ones — but there are plenty of men who fit that description. On average, though, women are better at empathizing with others, and better at picking up on others’ moods and caring about how they are doing.

Men, meanwhile, are better at analyzing systems and building things.

That’s how natural selection made our brains.

Scientists have seen the differences with brain imaging, and have explained them with evolutionary psychology. But before these tools were ever available, most people knew intuitively that there were differences between the sexes.

One interesting chap who championed women was William Moulton Marston, a consultant for DC Comics in the 1940s. He created a female heroine in a male-dominated world — and called her Wonder Woman.

Marston wasn’t just a comics consultant. He developed the systolic blood-pressure test and then the polygraph test, otherwise known as the lie-detector.

Convinced that women could spot the truth better, and were naturally more honest than men, he symbolized this by giving Wonder Woman a “magic rope,” which, when wrapped around someone, had the power to make them speak the truth.

Real life is more complicated than fiction, and Marston’s lie-detector doesn’t work as well as Wonder Woman’s magic rope, because it’s fairly easy to trick. It is not admissible in United States military courts, but most civilian courts still allow polygraph evidence.

Luckily, there are alternatives. One, called “brain fingerprinting,” has already had some success. The technique, which measures brain activity via electrodes on the scalp, was invented by Lawrence A. Farwell, a neuroscientist who is the chairman and chief scientist of Brain Fingerprinting Laboratories Inc., headquartered in Seattle, Wash. Farwell says that the brain stores memories of all events, so evidence of those memories — if they were experienced — can be measured.

Farwell used brain fingerprinting last year to show that Terry Harrington, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder in Iowa in 1978, had no brain record of key details of the crime scene that were not publicly known. As a result, a witness confessed that he had lied in court and Harrington is now free.

Brain fingerprinting has been ruled admissible in U.S. courts, but we’ve already seen that the polygraph test is still allowed and that’s known to be an unreliable method.

The answer to the lie-detection problem might instead be found in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Its leading proponent is Scott Faro, director of the Functional Brain Imaging Center at Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia.

“There may be unique areas in the brain involved in deception that can be measured with fMRI,” said Faro, speaking last month at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America. “We were able to create consistent and robust brain activation related to a real-life deception process.”

When subjects were asked to tell lies under experimental conditions, fMRI scans showed that several areas of the brain were active. These areas were located in the frontal (medial inferior and pre-central), temporal (hippocampus and middle temporal) and limbic (anterior and posterior cingulate) lobes. When volunteers were telling the truth, the fMRI showed activation in the frontal lobe (inferior and medial), the temporal lobe (inferior) and the cingulate gyrus.

Interestingly, Faro found that more areas of the brain were working during the deception process compared to the truth-telling condition. This reflects the greater effort needed to tell a lie, which has behavioral consequences that law-enforcement agents (for example) look for when questioning a suspect.

Maureen O’Sullivan knows all about this. A professor of psychology at the University of San Francisco, she has worked with the police, the CIA and the FBI, analyzing videos of people lying.

“We’re looking for inconsistencies in the way people are talking,” O’Sullivan said in an interview. “When someone is lying they may have to think more about keeping details straight and slow their speech, or become more hesitant; work particularly hard to make the lie flow smoothly and speak more rapidly; use an odd phrase; or become tongue-tied. The inconsistency or the change in delivery is the clue that something more is going on.”

With training, almost anyone can learn to recognize the array of micro-expressions that are involved in many kinds of lies. Yet although they become better at detecting lies, most people can still be duped by a skilled liar.

Most people, that is, except for a rare type of person who is exceptionally good at spotting lies.

O’Sullivan tested more than 13,000 people for the ability to detect deception. She found 31 who were almost always able to spot a lie. They are “wizard” lie-detectors. “We hope that by studying our wizards, we’ll learn more about the kinds of behaviors and ways of thinking and talking that can betray a liar to an experienced interviewer,” O’Sullivan said.

“Our wizards are extraordinarily attuned to detecting the nuances of facial expressions, body language and ways of talking and thinking.”

The wizards seem to have an innate ability to sense deception. How is this possible? People with autism are said to have the extreme male-type brain (i.e. an extreme sense of logic and rationality). Perhaps the wizards are the female-brain equivalent, people with an extreme “female” brain and, therefore, exceptional empathic ability.

It seems then that the wizards have an inbuilt version of Wonder Woman’s magic rope. William Moulton Marston would be pleased. For the rest of us, we’ll have to rely on fMRI.