Truth or Lie?

This was the critical question answered in the ‘Mind Reading’ event on Wednesday. Using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) brain scans, Dr Donna Rose Addis and Associate Professor Brett Cowan were asked to spot which pattern of brain activity looked most like a true memory.

The event was organised by the Centre for Brain Research and the Centre for Advanced Magnetic Resonance Imaging (CAMRI) at The University of Auckland, as part of Brain Awareness Week. Promising to reveal the science of brain imaging, ‘Mind Reading’ offered an entertaining look at the capabilities of brain imaging thanks to MRI technology.

So could they do it? Well the answer was a hesitant yes! At the live event held at the Auckland Museum Events Centre, MC journalist Russell Brown pushed cognitive neuroscientist Dr Addis to make a choice, and it turned out her pick was indeed the scan taken while participant Reece Roberts was remembering a true experience.

The central premise of the event revolved around psychology student Reece being put through an exciting experience – in this case a whiz around a race track – which he then had to remember. In the alternate scenario, he then had to ‘remember’ an event which never happened. In other words he had to lie and try to fool the scanner.

Memory and imagination actually use overlapping brain regions and so the scans from each scenario looked remarkably similar. The packed out public audience of 400 held their breaths while the choice was made, and finally the correct answer was revealed. It turned out that increased activity in the hippocampus, which organises memory, was the clues which gave the game away for Dr Addis.

So does this mean that MRI scanners could be used for lie detection? Well the answer was still a resounding no. The technology shows increasing promise for understanding human behaviour and thought, but is not reliable when scanning just one individual. This is because scientific experiments are usually conducted with a large group of people and repeated many times so that the responses are averaged out. 

However MRI technology, like the 3T Siemens scanner at CAMRI, is still hugely exciting for the future. With international research revealing that thoughts can be turned into words, and that people in comas still imagine moving, the sci-fi scenario of mind reading isn’t too far away.

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