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Biology 202
2002 Third Paper
On Serendip

"The Truth is Out There"

Asra Husain

Murders', rapists, robbers, con artists, terrorist, kidnappers, and the list could go on. They bring fear and disgrace to a town. They are a part of society that we would like to get rid of. Even though the number of crimes has been declining in the past few years, ideally we as a society would like it to continue to decline to zero, but realistically we would be happy with a low crime rate. There are a number of technologies that facilitate the conviction of suspects such as DNA testing, lie detector testing, fingerprinting, hypnosis, forensic study, etc. Of course, there is always a bit of discrepancy with the accuracy of each of these technologies.

However, a very recent development called Brain fingerprinting, is taking a big step towards eliminating that margin of error. Dr. Lawrence Farwell, a Director and Chief Scientist at the Human Brain Research Laboratory in Fairfield, Iowa first introduced brain fingerprinting. Brain fingerprinting serves a similar purpose as that of the lie detector testing device, but claims to be 100% accurate unlike the lie detector, which is nearly 100% accurate. Brain fingerprinting determines whether the crime was committed or not and the results are not affected by anxiety, nervousness, or lying, since it simply measures if the information is stored in the brain (2).

Since the brain is the archive to a human's life story, storing all of the memories, the brain cannot lie, whereas the person can verbally lie. Taking images and words that are irrelevant and relevant to the crime are shown to the suspect by flashing them on a computer screen. Electrical brain responses are measured non-invasively through a patented headband equipped with sensors (1). Memory and encoding related multifaceted electroencephalographic response (MERMER) is the name for the specific brain wave, P300, which is brought forth when the brain recognizes significant information. As Iona Miller, Graywolf Swinney, and John Penkert's studies show that P300 waves can be observed in relation to the journeys to determine if psychologically significant imagery will trigger this objective sign of recognition (6). Thus if a crime was committed by the suspect undergoing brain fingerprinting, the brain will have a recollection of the crime and when a relevant image or word to the crime flashes on the screen, P300 will be emitted and detected by the computer analyzing data.

Dr. Farwell believes this new tool will be the next lie detector and benefit the society greatly. He has done several research studies funded by government agencies such as FBI, CIA, and the U.S. Navy (3). After what happened on September 11th, government agencies are looking to invest in brain fingerprinting technologies and use them to detect terrorists and anyone who has participated in the planning, training, and support activities essential to carrying out the terrorist act (5). It can also identify terrorists before they strike because they have the critical information about the organization, training, and planning of the terrorist act. Other benefits to brain fingerprinting are finding politicians who tell the truth during campaigns, detecting honesty in meeting contractual obligations, but I think it would be best implemented for determining facts in murder or kidnapping cases.

For instance, Terry Harrington, 41 years old, was convicted of murdering a retired police captain in 1977. Twenty-five years later, Dr. Farwell conducted the brain-fingerprinting test on Harrington and another key-witness, who claimed to have been riding with Harrington when they went to steal the car (7). For Harrington, brain fingerprinting had shown no recollection of the car theft or the killing of the police captain and the witness's testimony was proven false and the witness later retracted the testimony stating that he only incriminated Harrington because he was told that, if he failed to testify against the accused, that he himself would be charged with the murder (7). Therefore, Harrington's lawyers required for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence. However, the judge rejected to motion for a new trial because he didn't feel brain fingerprinting technology had had enough study done, but did admit the brain fingerprinting technique into evidence. This didn't stop Harrington's lawyers from appealing the case to the Iowa Court of Appeals. Clearly this a great tool for the wrongly accused, but this raises concerns about a citizen's privacy rights.

For example, if you were traveling to Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, or any country that the United States is potentially threatened by and upon your return to the U.S., the government officials require you to be brain fingerprinted. Personally, I know I would feel violated and scared to know what they would find out about me as a person. How do I know if they are only testing to detect terrorists? What if I did a thorough research on terrorism and terrorist acts and wrote my thesis on it? Should I be worried that my recognition and positive response to the images and words label me as a terrorist or a potential threat to the society?

If the government allows for the random screening of travelers to take place, then they may begin to screen random people in public places such as tourist attractions, movie theaters, shopping malls, etc. Private businesses and big corporations may find brain fingerprinting a useful tool in detecting what a person knows at a job interview. This is poses a threat to interviewees who may not want to reveal their religion, sexual orientation, past criminal records, or anything that they wish to keep confidential.

Another problem with brain fingerprinting that should be taken into consideration is brain fingerprinting an alleged witness. An innocent bystander may have witnessed a crime and therefore has the same memories as the criminal. How does brain fingerprinting distinguish between a criminal's and a witness's memories? Dr. Farwell argues that his technology can only tell you what the brain has recorded as a sequence of events and if the witness did not commit the crime, the brain will not have a memory of it. Sexual harassment cases or rape cases would definitely be questionable as to the degree of validity. Both of these cases deal with issues of intent and brain fingerprinting cannot be of any help, but it can be used to find out if both of the parties involved have the same alibi.

After thoroughly thinking about the positive and negative aspects of brain fingerprinting, I feel as though more research needs to be done before it can be used. Dr. Farwell only mentions a test done on FBI agents. His device was able to detect 17 FBI agents out of 21 people tested (4). Even though Dr. Farwell claims to have 100% accuracy, Peter Rosenfeld, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, does not see how he is getting 100% accuracy. Rosenfeld himself is getting about 80% correct from conducting a similar brainwave study (4). He believes the subjects used for Dr. Farwell's study may have become use to the test and the type of images and words appearing on the screen. Thus there is ambiguity in how the device was tested and who should be used as controls for the experiment.

However, the most disturbing issue that I find with brain fingerprinting is human rights. I agree with most of Dr. Farwell's points and his technology, but I am concerned about the future of human rights and the right to privacy. If this device becomes a standard tool in court cases, airports, and government buildings, then there is no telling what the limitations of its application will be in the future.

Other studies are being conducted on the brain and its relationship with the "act of lying." Dr. Daniel Langleben and Dr. Ruben Gur from University of Pennsylvania are studying the brain's behavior during deception. Their study is called "Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) of the Brain During Deception" and fMRI is used as a kind of lie detector (4). Subjects are put inside an MRI machine, which measures blood flow to various regions of the brain (4). This piece of equipment has allowed researchers to identified the anterior cingulated cortex, which is located a few inches behind the forehead, and the left premotor cortex, which is located near the ear, as regions that become activated when the subjects are lying (4). These areas of the brain become activated when the "act of lying" is happening. This machine as well brings forth similar problems that brain fingerprinting faces. People can convince themselves into thinking that they are telling the truth, which defeats the purpose of fMRI. Gur and Langleben both suggest further testing of fMRI in order to have a better understanding of this machine.

Both the Brain fingerprinting technology and fMRI are very recent developments in the scientific world and add to the understanding of the human brain and behavior. According to Dr. Farwell and other scientists, the P300 brain wave is responsible for recognizing imagery and words, which means that the person has a memory of it. When a subject has seen an image or words that he/she remembers and there is a positive response of the P300 brain wave. This tells analysts that the subject's brain, which does not lie, has seen it before. The same line of thinking goes for Gur and Langleben's research on the fMRI machine. This device is slightly different in that it identifies if the "act of lying" occurs when the subject is asked a question. This instrument will detect activation in a certain area of the brain to recognize lying. Since both of these technologies have similar purposes, they bring similar benefits as well as similar concerns to the society.

Thus, scientists see brain fingerprinting and fMRI as technologies benefiting the society in a great way such as exonerating the wrongly accused, convicting the guilty, and protecting the nation against terrorism. Then again, both of these technologies can be easily abused. If Dr. Farwell's claim of 100% accuracy does prove to be true by other scientists and if Gur and Langleben's fMRI machine is perfected, then these machines could be used to determine religion, sexual orientation, or anything a citizen wishes to keep private, which is a violation of human right to privacy.

As with every other new discovery in the scientific world, there will always be debate as to the validity of the research and of the machine it self as well as creating ethical and moral issues. No matter how many experiments are done, there will always be risks. The question is where do we draw the line? With science, there is no end as to how far we will go to play "God." Therefore, the most important thing to remember as scientist is that "With great powers comes a great responsibility," as best put by Spiderman's uncle.


1)Brain Fingerprinting, A Brief Study of the Technology

2)Health Watch- A View of the Criminal Mind

3) Brainwave Sensor Touted as Tool in Counter-Terrorism

4)A truth Machine

5) Brain Fingerprinting: A New Paradigm in Counter terrorism

6) The Neuropsychology of CRP, Dreams, and REM

7)Brain Fingerprinting Fails First Court Test in Iowa

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