30 May 2011

How my ethics of brain scanning paper was overtaken by events

ResearchBlogging.orgI know my most recent paper is probably going take some flak as being naïve.

This is the price you pay for trying to expand your horizons. An invert neuro guy writing an ethics paper? About brain scans? In humans? With spies? The potential to look foolish is huge.

But since I’ve gone and done it anyway, let me tell you how it all came about.

This paper started about three years when I ran into my colleague Cynthia Jones at lunch at the student union. I actually hadn’t seen her for a while. She looked rather different than when I’d last seen her, and she thought I didn’t recognize her (this had been happening to her a lot), but I was just feeling particularly grumpy then. She had just launched an ethics center.* Over my sandwich and chips, she started telling me about this ethics conference that she was organizing about the intelligence community. Less formally, this is the spy community.

I mentioned my interest in brain scans and the possibilities for extracting information. After all, I’d already given a Brain Awareness Week talk about it in 2006. (Indeed, if you listen to the talk from five years ago, you’ll hear some very similar phrases to those in the paper.) Cynthia invited me to give a presentation at the conference.

The conference took place in November 2008, which I wrote about here.

It was always the plan collect papers from the conference in theme issues of Global Virtue Ethics Review, which has its editorial office at my university. For various reasons, the editorial process was... lengthy. I submitted the manuscript over a year ago.

Because of that lead time, my manuscript was overtaken by events.

In a lot of cases, that time from submission to publication actually wouldn’t matter very much. But because the research on brain imaging is so abundant and moving so fast, I knew this paper would have a “use by” date. Indeed, on the first page, I wrote:

(T)his review is only a single snapshot of a rapidly moving target.

But even I didn’t expect some findings coming out that would be so relevant, and, had I known then what I know now, would have substantially dampened the tone of my article.

Many people think that brain scans are being oversold, and that a lot of distinctly dodgy stuff is being pushed out there about what brain scans are able to do. My paper seems fairly optimistic in comparison about the future potential of brain scans to detect covert information.

I’m feeling rather less optimistic these days. In particular, a paper by Ganis and colleagues (2011) showed that there are some dead simple countermeasures that will make the detection of deception way more difficult than I thought.

You can also see similar limitations in this interview with Jesse Rissman (my emphasis).

We could tell quite reliably whether people thought each face was familiar or new, but we couldn’t tell the true status of the memory. When we tried to distinguish faces the person had seen from those he hadn’t, we were correct less than 60 percent of the time. ... The idea that our brain contains a veridical record of our experiences is, I think, fanciful.

This runs counter to some research I cite in my paper that suggested it might be possible to distinguish true from false memories. (In fact, that was the finding by Slotnick and Schacter in 2004 that first got me tracking brain imaging research at more than a casual level.)

If I were to rewrite the paper now, many of the arguments would stay the same, but the tone of the paper would be much more pessimistic about how soon or even how likely it is that we could move out of the pure research stage on the detection of deception.

Still, another new paper that just hit (Shirer et al. 2011) pushes me back to thinking this might truly be a viable enterprise. (I just found the reference as I’m writing this, so can’t comment in detail on it yet.)

Nevertheless, there is still a lot that I’m very happy about in my new paper. For instance, I like a bit where I argue that fMRI is already acting as a “mind reader,” from a certain point of view. Since then, I’ve drawn the distinction between “mind reading” (determining a subjective mental state) and “telepathy” (determining someone’s stream of conscious verbal thought), a distinction I wish I could have got into the paper.

While I may be able to make some excuses for scientific naïvite on lead time and new research, I know I am still taking a risk on the ethics side. I hope that the discussion there is reasonably sophisticated, but I am now ready to take any lumps thrown my way regardless.

Additional:  The same day my article went online, Nature reported that the American Department of Homeland Security has been testing devices to detect people’s intent to carry out a “disruptive act.” This swings me towards the cynical again, as even at my most optimistic, I would not be field testing something like this yet.


Faulkes Z. 2011. Can brain imaging replace interrogation and torture? Global Virtue Ethics Review 6(2): 55-78. http://www.spaef.com/article.php?id=1266

Ganis G, Rosenfeld JP, Meixner J, Kievit RA, Schendan HE. 2011. Lying in the scanner: Covert countermeasures disrupt deception detection by functional magnetic resonance imaging. NeuroImage 55(1): 312-319. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.11.025

Rissman J, Greely HT, Wagner AD. 2010. Detecting individual memories through the neural decoding of memory states and past experience. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 107: 9849-9854. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1001028107

Shirer W, Ryali S, Rykhlevskaia E, Menon V, Greicius M. 2011. Decoding subject-driven cognitive states with whole-brain connectivity patterns. Cerebral Cortex: In press. DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhr099

Slotnick S, Schacter D. 2004. A sensory signature that distinguishes true from false memories. Nature Neuroscience 7(6): 664-672. DOI: 10.1038/nn1252

Photo by by scott ziegler on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

* It’s officially a “collaborative,” because apparently “center” has some special administrative meaning.

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