Truth or lie? Can MRI help scientists read our minds?

 It’s the slogan of a new game show on TV3, but can science help us tell the two apart?

This blog was first posted on the Science Media Centre Sciblogs site. By Dr Donna Rose Addis, Centre for Brain Research, University of Auckland

Mind Reading has always been thought of as a superhuman skill, but fMRI technology is bringing us ever closer to this goal. So-called ‘functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging’ tracks blood oxygen levels across the brain, allowing scientists to visualise what brain regions ‘light up’ during different types of cognition. Of course this is an indirect measure, as we assume that the more oxygen a brain area consumes, the more it is doing – as thinking is hungry work!

Nevertheless the advances in functional MRI (fMRI) since the 1990s have been met with great enthusiasm from the scientific community – in the 16 years between 1991 and 2007, over 19,000 peer-reviewed articles reporting on fMRI research were published (Logothetis, 2008). Coupled with the increasing availability of and access to fMRI technology, this method has come to dominate brain research and led to the emergence of a new field: cognitive neuroscience. fMRI studies have investigated the neural underpinnings of every aspect of thought and emotion, from executing physical movements, language and mathematics, to the more complex and (some would argue) uniquely human abilities of remembering, imagining, and understanding the self.

Despite the exciting technological innovations – and the seductive images of brain regions ‘lighting up’ with activity – there are limits to what we can understand about the brain and cognition from brain imaging. The sin of over-interpreting MRI data usually comes about from a logical fallacy called ‘reverse inference’. Essentially, a reverse inference is when one looks at a pattern of brain activity and from that, makes conclusions about what that brain (or its owner) is thinking or feeling. That is, engaging in a form of mind reading.

The reality is though that in a typical fMRI study, we scan 15–30 different participants and then we put together all their brain scans to get an average picture of brain activity during a particular cognitive task. This averaging is important because everyone’s brain is slightly different in its anatomy and its functioning, and we have to cancel out any idiosyncratic fluctuations (or “noise”). So could MRI ever be used to tell what a single person is actually thinking?

Liars Inc.

The most popular use of this skill would be lie detection tests, and that’s not as futuristic as it sounds. In the US, a company called ‘No Lie MRI Inc.’ is already claiming to “provide unbiased methods for the detection of deception and other information stored in the brain”. However these scans inherently focus on one person – the defendant – making it impossible to know if the defendant’s brain activity shows signs of deception or if it just happens that their brain activates differently from the average. Another issue is that fMRI data can be easily corrupted. In order for lie detection scans to work, the experimenter would have to ensure the defendant is compliant and thinking about the episode in question. It would be easy, however, for a defendant to thwart the lie detection process by just thinking about random things and so ‘scrambling’ their brain activity.

So although fMRI is not a mind reading device, I don’t mean to imply that at its current stage of development, brain imaging cannot provide us with any useful information about the brain. MRI has revolutionised our science and significantly expanded our knowledge about the inner workings of the brain. It has sparked new hypotheses and theories that in turn have changed how we think about the mind and brain.

Furthermore, our methods for human brain mapping are advancing all the time. Not to definitively say what someone is thinking, but to infer statistically what they might be thinking. So if the innovation in the last 20 years of brain imaging is anything to go by, before we know it we may well have mind reading apps on our phones, and scanning tests on daytime TV!

You can find out more about ‘Mind Reading’ in a live scan event during Brain Awareness Week. Dr Donna Rose Addis and colleague Associate Professor Brett Cowan will explore the brain’s inner workings, discovering the origins of imagination and memory. Chaired by journalist Russell Brown, the event will feature live analysis of brain scans at Auckland Museum.

The event will also go online on Thursday 15th March for the rest of New Zealand.

When: Wednesday 14 March 7.00 – 8.30pm

Where: Auckland Museum

Tickets: $10 (plus $3 booking fee)

Book online or phone 09 306 7048. For more details, see or @TeamMRI


What is MRI?

During Brain Awareness Week we’ll be delving into the human mind as part of our ‘Mind Reading?’ event. We will use Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to do this, a technology which has revolutionised medicine. So how does this amazing machine work?

 MRI is now used all over the world to peer inside patients to create pictures of incredible quality, and to diagnose the problems that are causing their symptoms. It all started about 60 years ago and the journey has included Nobel prizes, dramatic technical developments and the creation of something that was once only a dream.

 MRI uses an extremely strong magnetic field to take its pictures, and while we usually use it to see the anatomy of the brain, the spinal cord and joints like the knee, at our Mind Reading event we’ll be using MRI to journey into the functioning mind.

 Despite the obvious need to be careful with the magnetic field, MRI scanning is considered to be entirely safe. It doesn’t require the use of X-rays like CT scanning, and has been used to perform millions of scans safely all over the world.

MRI scanners use an extremely strong magnetic field!

 MRI is like a TV in that the machine sends a little signal into the patient, then pauses and listens for the signal that comes out. Scientists use a coil to detect that, which means with brain imaging you need a head coil. In order to get that signal we need a very strong magnetic field. The field is so strong that it can suck metal objects into its grasp, and has surprised many unsuspecting people!

 Another way to describe the process is that your body is made up of water. Inside water is protons and it’s the hydrogen protons that we use to make our images. Protons are like little spinning tops, and when a body goes into the scanner, instead of being randomly aligned they all line up like soldiers in rank. Then we get all the tops to start processing in line then turn off our signal so as they come back to their natural position they emit the signal we read and then make into pictures.

 The reason we get so excited by MRI is its future capabilities. It can peer inside people without touching them and with no known side effects. Not only that, but it can actually image blood moving real time, so giving us a clue to brain activity. So this is the only technology that can do what we’re attempting with our Mind Reading event. Will we be able to tell what someone is thinking?

Mind Reading will be held on Wednesday March 14th at Auckland Museum. You can book tickets now.

Mind Reading will use images taken from a Siemens 3T Skyra scanner.

 By Associate Professor Brett Cowan, Director, CAMRI

Blogging about Mind Reading

Journalist Russell Brown will host the Mind Reading event next week – on March 14th at Auckland Museum.

Russell is a keen blogger and writes about us in his Hard News blog. We’re very excited that he’s working with us, although we do aim to make brain science easier to understand than the European debt crisis..!

Also keen to attend is Brain Breaking – a blog run by enthusiastic psychology students. Read more about their blog here, and also their interesting post on Dr Donna Rose Addis, our brain imaging expert.

You can book tickets to attend Mind Reading at the Auckland Museum here. Follow us as ever at @TeamMRI

Russell Brown announced as MC for Mind Reading event

Russell Brown

Russell Brown will MC the Mind Reading event on March 14th 2012

 Media commentator Russell Brown has been confirmed as the host for our Mind Reading event in Brain Awareness Week. Russell is the host of Media 7 on TVNZ7 and the owner of the Public Address community of blogs.


 Russell has a keen interest in brain research and will bring a journalist’s questioning eye to the proceedings on the night. He says he is very keen to watch the live analysis in action, aiming to find out if our scientists can tell a lie from a memory.


Russell is one of New Zealand’s most prolific independent journalists. He has been writing about technology and media for The Listener since 1993 and has picked up a variety of awards there and at Unlimited magazine and Computerworld, where he was the country’s first online news editor.


In 2007 he received the inaugural Qantas Media Award for blogging, for his long-running blog Hard News. He is also on the boards of the New Zealand Sound Archives and NZOnscreen, and is the co-founder of Kiwi Foo Camp.


Russell currently writes the blog Hard News and is a keen Twitter user. You can catch him at the handle @publicaddress along with our scientists at @TeamMRI.


Book online now for Mind Reading event

You can now buy tickets for our Mind Reading event in Brain Awareness Week. Held at the Auckland Museum, this exciting science event will explore whether we can tell the difference between a lie and a memory with MRI. Book online now!

MRI expert Associate Professor Brett Cowan describes the event in this video on Facebook.

Meet our MRI expert, Associate Professor Brett Cowan

Brett will reveal the magic of MRI in our Mind Reading event

Brett is an expert in medical engineering and will reveal the magic of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and its ability to see inside people in our Mind Reading event. With a medical and engineering background, he will explain how MRI uses superconductivity, with temperature and pressures from outer space, and magnetic fields strong enough attract metal objects so strongly that they can’t be pulled out of the machine.

Associate Professor Cowan is an Auckland Mechanical Engineering graduate who specialised in aeronautics. After running the wind tunnel at the engineering school he studied philosophical theology and ancient history before completing his medical training. He was placed first in his class in both Mechanical Engineering and Medicine winning over 30 academic prizes. He then worked as a physician in emergency medicine at North Shore Hospital for ten years.

Brett is now the director of the Centre for Advanced MRI at the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, where he performs research with MRI to image hearts along with clinical trials of new treatments for old diseases. The Centre for Advanced MRI has two MRI scanners including the Siemens Skyra our Team MRI will be using for ‘Mind Reading’. They provide not only research facilities to the University of Auckland, but also scans for children born with heart defects and many other patients with complex medical problems from Auckland and throughout New Zealand.

He would always rather be motor racing.

Meet the Mind Reading organiser Laura Fogg

Laura will run the control room for our Mind Reading experiment!

Laura is the Communications and Liaison Manager for the Centre for Brain Research. She is a literate science geek (unusual?!) and loves letting people in to the secrets of brain science. Her career has been focused around science communication and organizing exciting public science events. Mind Reading will be a first for New Zealand and Laura is very excited about this!

Laura trained as a science journalist at City University in the UK, and then worked as a journalist for the BBC and other stations for six years. Reporting in local news gave her a good grounding in different audiences, covering everything from murders and crime, to a dog in a bridesmaid’s dress! She then worked in production for BBC Countryfile, a rural current affairs programme that took her all over the UK.

Laura has a First Class Honours degree in Biomedical Sciences from the University of Manchester and is currently undertaking an MSc in Speech Science. She moved to New Zealand three years ago, and has maintained her interest in science communication with links to the Science Communicators Association of New Zealand and the Association of British Science Writers. She is also a freelance magazine writer, and writes and edits the Auckland Huntington’s disease newsletter as well as the CBR Connections magazine.

Always keen to introduce new audiences to the wonders of the brain, Laura is hoping this event will leave us all with a sense of awe for the powers of the brain. As a keen science fiction fan, she’s very interested to find out if our scientists really can tell the difference between a lie and a memory… a brave new world?!