Brainspotting

Its developer, Dr. Lawrence Farwell, listed in Time
magazine’s “100 innovators who may be the Picassos or Einsteins of the
21st century,” calls the technology “brain fingerprinting,” because it
scientifically matches information in the brain with information
obtained from the crime scene. The computerized test requires strapping
electrodes to a person’s head and flashing on a screen words and images
that would be known only to the investigators and the criminal. Upon
recognizing an element, the suspect emits an involuntary but detectable
wave of recognition in the brain—an “aha” response known as a “mermer,”
which stands for “multifaceted electroencephalographic response.” The
computer analyzes the results with the help of proprietary algorithms
and determines whether crime-related details are present or absent in
the brain.

“It’s a far cry from thought-reading,” Farwell told HSToday.
“We don’t get a specific response for ‘gun’ and a different one for
‘knife.’ We may, for example, flash words or pictures of a gun, a
knife, a baseball bat and a rope. The perpetrator knows which was the
murder weapon and, when he sees it, his brain says ‘AHA!’ We pick up on
the response, not on the thought of ‘gun.’ An innocent suspect who does
not know what the murder weapon is does not have the ‘Aha!’ response to
the murder weapon.”

The results have been ruled admissible in a
few US courts. Jimmy Ray Slaughter, who was on death row in Oklahoma,
was granted a stay of execution in February 2004 for the murder of his
girlfriend after test results demonstrated that he had no knowledge of
the room in which the murder took place. JB Grinder, who had been a
prime suspect for 15 years in the 1984 rape-murder case of a Missouri
girl, confessed to the crime and three previously unsolved murders
after Farwell’s test revealed that he had special knowledge of the
murder. Terry Harrington, convicted in 1978 of shooting to death a
retired police officer, did not have details of the crime stored in his
brain. An Iowa judge allowed the new technology as evidence, and after
23 years of imprisonment he was finally set free in 2003.

Farwell claims that brain fingerprinting has
proven 100 percent accurate in more than 170 tests and that the
procedure meets the Daubert Standard for establishing the scientific
validity and subsequent admissibility of evidence into court.

The technology sounds very promising:
Suspects are interviewed beforehand to ensure they have no previous
knowledge of the details that will be used in the test, and the
questions are selected after exhaustive research. Results are not
affected by the emotional state of the person, and any true/false
statements made cannot be faked. Farwell cautions, however, that while
the test detects information present in the brain it cannot determine
how that information got there (perhaps the suspect was merely a
witness to the crime) so that results must be utilized in conjunction
with all other available evidence.

Skepticism

While scientists admit to the soundness of the science, many are skeptical about its application without further research.

“The test depends on the tester being able to
figure out what the criminal remembers,” said Jennifer Vendemia, a
professor of psychology at the University of South Carolina. “If you
broke into someone’s house and stabbed them, would you remember what
the person was wearing, or what the wallpaper was like, or what their
hair color was, or where your victim was sitting?”

Emanuel Donchin, chair of the department of
psychology at the University of South Florida who co-authored a seminal
paper on the technology along with Farwell in the 1980s, agreed that
many issues must be ironed out before the technology can be considered
totally reliable.

“Memory is a creative process and not a
photographic reproduction of events in the environment,” said Donchin.
“Farwell’s assertions that the results can be unambiguously interpreted
in terms of the subject’s ‘guilt’ or ‘innocence’ or, as he puts it,
‘what is in the subject’s memory,’ grossly oversimplify a complex
situation. They also ignore a vast literature on memory and its
workings.”

Donchin added that the success of the
technique is dependent on the construction of the stimuli, and there is
no analytic, systematic way of constructing the questions yet. “It’s an
art, not a science. The outcome depends on the information available to
the investigator and the investigator’s skill and wisdom in designing
the test.”

That last issue has been a stumbling block so
far in getting the technology to be adopted into law. A report prepared
for the US Senate by federal agencies including the CIA, FBI and DoD in
2001 on the potential application of brain fingerprinting stated that
they found only limited applications for the technique. Primary
concerns were that the agents needed to know enough unique details of a
particular event, which were not always available, that the effects of
drugs, alcohol and hallucinogenic drugs on memory had not been studied
and that it required a trained scientist to administer the test. Other
experts stressed the need to study cross-cultural issues and the
effects of age and time on memory.

Counterterrorism applications

The procedure, however, has gained prominence
as a counterterrorism measure. Steve Kirsch,a technology guru and
founder of Propel Software Corp., advocates the inclusion of a
10-minute brain-fingerprinting test into normal security procedures at
airports and tying in the results to a person’s biometric information.

Farwell stated, though, that while technology
does not apply for general screening—screening huge numbers of people
without really knowing what one is looking for—it can be highly
effective for specific screening. “If we have reason to believe that
someone might be, for example, an

Al Qaeda-trained terrorist, then we can use a
brain-fingerprinting test because we know the contents of their
training program.”

He believes that, in time,
brain-fingerprinting testing will play the same role as DNA testing at
a crime scene. “It is vital for human rights that every suspect in a
crime, if he claims innocence, has the right to say: ‘Don’t tell me the
details about the crime. I’m innocent and I don’t know the specifics. I
demand a brain-fingerprinting test to prove this,’” Farwell said.

“The bottom line,” said Dr. Craig Kinsley,
chair of psychology at the University of Richmond, “is that it’s an
interesting technique, with an application some years off. It has a way
to go, but it is more science than science fiction.” HST

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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