Quantifying integrity

Thursday, December 9th, 2004

Uh oh, they’re on to us! The secret electrical frenzy we set off in our brains when we lie — in “the anterior cingulated, limbic lobe and inferior frontal regions,” as if we didn’t know — may now be visible to the shamelessly peeping eye of science. Is nothing sacred?

I experienced a flare-up of intense ambivalence, even fleeting common cause with religious fundamentalists, when I read the other day that some Temple University neuroscientists were in the process of building not just a better but a foolproof lie detector, using functional magnetic resonance imaging technology. Maybe they can do it, but I don’t think I want them to, and not just because I dread the vision of a future that includes routine brain scans at the airport.

You can’t utter a falsehood, it turns out, without activating the regions of the brain that govern emotion, thought and memory. Truth-telling arises from a different area of the brain and apparently sets off less electrical activity. Therefore, fMRI technology has the potential to distinguish one activity from the other with more precision than a polygraph, the researchers say.

“These results are promising in that they suggest a consistency in brain patterns that might be beyond conscious control,” according to Medical News Today. A good liar can fool a polygraph machine, which measures changes in breathing, blood pressure and sweating, but fMRI can scrutinize us at the electrical level. Try faking your neuron activity, punk.

What this amounts to, in effect, is quantifying integrity, reducing a choice that exists at the core of what it means to be human — to tell the truth or not — to a picture an airport security guard, for instance, can see on a screen. Here’s where my hackles start quivering, where I feel my own prejudices and sensitivities press up against the prejudices of science. Or maybe what I mean is the prejudices of those who fund science and manipulate the direction of research.

“The government is interested in deception, and it is looking to get a portable, user-friendly technique to detect it,” lead researcher Scott Faro told reporters. So they’re trying to come up with a cost-effective, infallible contraption for outing lies.

What makes me uneasy is not brain research per se, not the extraordinary penetration of human inquiry into the cellular and atomic levels of existence, but the premise that drives the research: that even our moral choices are reducible to chemistry and physics; that brain equals mind, and whatever mystery separates them must yield to the onslaught of clipboard-wielding scientists; that machines can get our number.

And if that’s what we believe, we will develop, or continue to develop, technology that diminishes us. You can’t reduce a lie to measurable impulses without at the same time cheapening truth.

I’m bothered not that this portends a radical new direction for science and technology, into an unacceptable realm, but rather that it merely extends, yet again, the reach of same old, same old. This is just one more wasted opportunity, one more victory for linear thought.

Just as we’ve spent the last couple centuries yoking science to the study of disease rather than health and war rather than peace, so now we propose to study the lie rather than the truth. Doing so has diverted our focus, granted reality status to disease and conflict and reduced health and peace merely to their absence, to nothing in and of themselves, when in fact these states are infinitely complex, as shimmering and fragile as life itself.

The government is interested in deception. Yeah, I guess. Once more, the joke’s on us. What it’s interested in — now, more than ever, since “government” is indelibly stamped these days with the face of George Bush — is a monopoly on deception.

The Bush Administration runs the largest spin machine in human history. It’s spokesmen even boast that “reality is what we say it is,” which is sort of what lying means. Those weapons of mass destruction are around here somewhere. So is that democracy we brought over.

Seems to me the government’s pressing responsibility is not to chase down lies more effectively, but to begin role-modeling truth. Can any of us be free until it does?