Searching for Untruths

Fibs, palters, prevaricates and forswears – all flowery ways of describing the same dirty deed: lying. “That sweater is so flattering on you,” “Don’t worry, this will only sting for a second” or the always

Fibs, palters, prevaricates and forswears – all flowery ways of describing the same dirty deed: lying.

“That sweater is so flattering on you,” “Don’t worry, this will only sting for a second” or the always popular, “Hey Mom, we’re going out to the movies.”

Let’s face it. Everyone has at least let one harmless white lie slip off his or her tongue at some point. But be careful – two Temple scientists have developed a way to detect lying using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging technology.

“People have been trying to figure out deception for hundreds of years,” said Dr. Feroze B. Mohamed, associate director of the Functional Brain Imaging Center at Temple’s Medical School and co-chair of the experiment.

“One day we were chatting and got interested in the science behind deception. So we assembled a team of neuropsychologists and a polygraph expert to get to the root of lying,” Mohamed

In an eight-month experiment conducted at Drexel University from 2002 to 2003, alongside Temple professor and colleague Scott H. Faro M.D., polygraph expert Nathan J. Gordon and three other neuropsychologists, Mohamed developed a model of the process of deception – what happens from the time an individual hears a question to their eventual response.

The team recruited 12 students for the experiment (one was subsequently
eliminated for admitting guilt even when instructed to lie). The remaining 11 were split into two groups: six guilty subjects and five non-guilty subjects.

The guilty group was instructed to fire a gun that the researchers provided. They were then offered a $25 reward if they could lie and fool the fMRI when asked if they fired it.

The second group of innocent subjects did not fire any weapon, but were told they were suspects in a shooting. This group was instructed to be completely truthful in their responses when questioned.

placed in the MR device and asked identical questions by Gordon. All questions were posed to receive “yes” or “no” answers to eliminate error. When in the MR device, subjects were instructed to answer using a mouse pad because verbal responses distort the images.

“What we found through the fMRI technology
is that there are specific areas of the brain that are active when a lie is told,” Mohamed said. “Fourteen parts in the brain are used when the brain develops a deceptive response, whereas only seven areas are active when telling the truth. The brain is essentially twice as active when an individual is telling a lie.”

The frontal, temporal and occipital lobes as well as the anterior cingulate, right fusiform gyrus and right sublobar insula all become significantly more active during the deception process, according to a study published in the journal, “Radiology.”

To put it in layman’s terms, it takes more of the brain to tell a lie, causing increased blood flow. This blood flow can be measured through the fMRI.

As opposed to a polygraph test, which measures the physical symptoms of telling a lie (electrodermal activity, sweat, heart rate, blood pressure and respiratory), the fMRI captures hundreds of the images in the brain and functions as the questions are given. This in turn, makes the fMRI results indisputable and foolproof.

“With the fMRI, we go straight to the source. Either way, truth or lie, the individual’s brain must first go to memory, short and long, and find if there’s anything useful there,” Mohamed said. “The areas of the brain triggered are then identifiable on the images.”

Lie detector test results, meanwhile, are only admissible in 26 state courts and are largely dismissed throughout Europe because they have been known to produce varying results.

But Gordon insists that the lie detector itself is nearly 100 percent accurate – it is the examiner who needs to be up to par.

After all, except for one inconclusive result, Gordon’s polygraph tests came back with 100 percent correlation in the study.
A Temple graduate of the psychology program, Gordon has been in the polygraph field for more than 26 years and is one of the top specialists in the field in the world.

He has been involved in practically every major case in the region, and used the polygraph to free two innocent men incarcerated for 17 years and cracked a cold case dating back as far as the 1950s.

“It is impossible to beat the test itself – but an inexperienced examiner can be fooled,” Gordon said. “The precision of the polygraph results are above 98 percent in detecting a lie. The only problem is that it is only about 89 percent accurate with truthful responses because everyone is somewhat nervous and apprehensive when attached to the device.”

For those of us who don’t have fMRI technology or a lie detector, Gordon offered a helpful tip to catch that cheating significant other or shady co-worker.

“There are a few ways to tell if someone is lying just by talking to them. The eyes are huge when deciphering a liar.

“When the eyes move to the left,” he explained, “it usually signifies that they are recalling something in their right lobe, or memory. But when the eyes move right, they are searching for something they don’t previously have knowledge of, making that person somewhat more suspect.

There are also thought gestures to look for like hand-to-the-body contact which shows that the subject is under stress.”

But with all the beneficial work that Gordon, Mohamed, Faro and the rest of the team has undertaken, they need to do further research to develop the technology to a point where it could be applicable to law enforcement or intelligence agencies.

“We were one of the first groups in the world to look at brain images linking them to deception,” Mohamed said.

“Unfortunately, however, we are still looking for funding from outside, possibly from CIA or Homeland Security because research has halted.”

Until liars are distinguished by their long noses, Mohamed and Gordon will have to keep working.

Cody Glenn can be reached at

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