Thursday, September 18, 2008

The truth, the whole truth, and way too much truth

India has the answer to water-boarding and other forms of torture.

The country is considering using magnetic resonance imaging to determine whether a suspect is lying. Presumably, certain parts of the brain go to work at the thought of mendacity.

So, you take the suspect, strap him between huge magnetics, zap him with radio waves, and bingo! He's either innocent or guilty.

The problem, as increasingly anxious Indians are pointing out, is that the system is extremely fallible.

How could it not be?

Making up a story, not telling all you know, or modifying the truth, are all forms of lying. All require memory. The basic issue here is that no one — no one — knows how the brain creates memory.

Somehow, a enormous collection of intertwined neurons supplies another enormous collection of intertwined neurons (your consciousness) with memories. However, memories could not exist in specific, easily identifiable parts of the brain.

Remember something. The last time you ate apple pie, let's say. You remember what the pie looked like, what it smelled like, how it tasted, who you ate it with, if you ate it alone and felt lonely, if your stomach hurt, how does this pie compare to other pies, and perhaps even less coherent thoughts.

Someone might start to think about cutting up the pie, and trying to remember high school geometry or trigonometry, and then the person who sat behind you in trig class and drew on your neck with a ballpoint pen, and how difficult it was to remove the marks.

Likewise, asking "Did you do it?" could trigger childhood memories of being punished, previous minor infractions, fear at the thought of incarceration, a memory of the last time you were this scared, how it felt when your father whipped you with a belt, and on and on.

Where do all of these memories lie? And how do you know if the MRI is picking up fresh guilt, or childhood shame?

Using brain scans to determine guilt makes the polygraph seem downright scientific.

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