Beckman Fellow 2012-13

Melissa Littlefield

Kinesiology & Community Health

Rethinking fMRI Lie Detection: Social Neuroscience and the Neural Correlates of Socially-Stressful Truth-Telling

Recent advances in medical imaging technologies, particularly in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), have allowed neuroscientists to study the neural correlates of various behaviors, attitudes, and experiences. One of the more controversial current assumptions about fMRI is its supposed ability to detect deception.

During her Center appointment, Professor Littlefield proposes to trouble lie-detection paradigms by testing and exploring the potential similarities between the stress of deception and the stress of telling the truth under duress. This area of neuroscience is developing rapidly, and the timing of her results could affect practices of criminal interrogation, standards for the admission of legal evidence, and the interpretation of Fifth Amendment rights.

Professor Littlefield’s hypothesis is that both deception and stressful truth-telling trigger increased activation (measured via blood-oxygenation levels), because both actions are associated with what have been termed self-conscious emotions, including guilt, shame, and embarrassment. She notes that lie-detection experiments to date have largely measured stress and not lying per se; the areas ostensibly active during deception experiments are associated with broad categories, such as decision-making and executive function. These same areas should be activated when one has to decide how honest to be in responding to a stressful question.

If her planned fMRI experiment bears out this hypothesis, the results will complicate current paradigms in lie-detection research by illustrating that truth-telling does not always produce a useful baseline state of activation. At a time when neuroscience is finding purchase in a number of humanities and social science departments, Professor Littlefield’s project also offers a framework for reintroducing larger philosophical and theoretical considerations into experimental design. The study is co-sponsored by the European Neuroscience and Society Network and the Center for Integrative Neuroscience (Aarhus University).