George Diepenbrock
KU News Service

Researcher: More study needed on interrogation techniques that measure brain waves

Tue, 04/29/2014

LAWRENCE — When police in Spain tried to locate two murder victims last year, they sought assistance on places to search from a tool that measured the brain activity of the convicted and confessed killers.

The technology, known as Brain Fingerprinting, developed by the American-based company Government Works Inc., basically seeks to use brain wave data in response to certain stimuli or details to determine whether a person is telling the truth. U.S. courts have sparingly allowed the higher-tech version of the traditional polygraph test or lie detector, and it has aided in both exoneration and conviction in American cases.

As the use of Brain Fingerprinting has expanded beyond the United States, a University of Kansas researcher argues the technology is based on an incorrect assumption about how human memory works.

"At the very least, we need to ask them to do several more methodological checks and make sure that whenever these technologies are used in legal contexts, we make clear the limitations of that technology," said Sarah Robins, an assistant professor of philosophy who studies the philosophy of neuroscience and related issues in neuroethics. "Maybe there's a stronger claim here that this should never make it into court, but my stance is to say: 'Let's think about the technology and the assumptions behind it.'"

Robins details the theoretical issues surrounding Brain Fingerprinting in her essay "Memory Traces, Memory Errors, and the Possibility of Neural Lie Detection," which will appear in "Brain Theory," edited by Charles Wolfe. Also in Wolfe's book, John Symons, a KU professor of philosophy, has co-authored the chapter "Computing with Bodies: Morphology, Function, and Computational Theory."

Wolfe, a research fellow of the Department of Philosophy and Moral Sciences at the University of Ghent in Belgium, is scheduled to speak at 7 p.m. Friday, May 2, at the Kansas Room of the Kansas Union.

Robins said the key issue with Brain Fingerprinting is that the technology presumes the mind works as an archive or "mental Rolodex" in which someone essentially retrieves a memory from his or her brain when needed.

"This is a default, traditional view, and it looks like the more we study memory, that that's not the right way to think about it," Robins said. "If we're designing technologies, perhaps even using them in a legal context, that rely upon that view of what memory is like, then we're actually making a mistake."

She said scientific research has supported a view the brain works more in a constructive or reconstructive way when trying to recollect things.

"Memory isn't focused on archiving the past. It keeps track of general patterns in the past but with an eye toward the future," Robins said. "So it favors patterns over particular, and to that end, there's no incentive to keep these particular, discreet perfect records."

This makes it more difficult for people to recall specific details about events in the past, which is what authorities are trying to uncover as part of an interrogation in a criminal case or examination of a potential eyewitness.

"When trying to remember, I’m focused on patterns not particulars, and when I need to recall something when you ask me about a specific past event, I reconstruct it. I build a representation on that event based upon what was likely to have happened," she said.

Robins said scientific evidence about how memory works should introduce caution into how Brain Fingerprinting is used. The chief function is to monitor brain waves during a given time window after a stimulus has been presented — a P300 response. Brain Fingerprinting is designed on the assumption that an elevated P300 response is a measure of recognition. If, for example, the technology detected an elevated P300 when a suspect was presented with information that only the perpetrator of a crime would know, such as showing a photo of the murder weapon, then investigators could assume that the suspect recognizes the murder weapon.

"As an interrogator, I assume you recognize the murder weapon, so now I've got good evidence to say you've seen this weapon before. Therefore, you were probably at the scene of the crime," she said. "But without that assumption of recognition, I do not get the same conclusion. Say I assume it’s a measure of familiarity. It could look very similar to a hunting knife your uncle owns, so that's why I have that response from your brain. Now the conclusion that the P300 shows evidence of guilt looks unwarranted."

She said the Brain Fingerprinting measurements wouldn't give investigators an indication of why the photo of the weapon could be familiar to the suspect. The technology cannot reveal whether suspects recognize the item, or only something that resembles it in one way or another.

"The theoretical assumption behind the whole apparatus, that what is being measured is recognition, is what is flawed," Robins said.

Instead she said looking at the nature of constructive memory reveals techniques investigators should avoid, like asking leading questions, because it can prime a person's memory in a way he or she wouldn’t be able to take back.

"We need to have stricter rules about how those questions can be asked and how people can be interrogated so that we only probe their memories in ways that are as neutral as possible," she said.

Robins said as technology continues to improve and make brain scanning more accessible to law enforcement agencies, researchers should still continue to examine the methodological issues behind the technology.

"There's a huge trend in this direction, toward the idea that the brain will solve various legal, social and ethical issues," Robins said. "Maybe if I can just get to your brain, I can find out what's really going on. I think that's intriguing, and there are certain things we can figure out this way, but in most cases it's not going to be quite so simple. It's not as if when you are lying to me, and the truth is just hidden in your brain, if only we can unlock it."

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Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner. See it here:
Rock Chalk! Junior Ashlie Koehn named KU's 18th Truman Scholar
Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening.

.@KU bschool 's KIP team includes @KU _SADP students in all-ages housing project. #KUworks
Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner From KU News Service: Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening. To her surprise, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little was on the other end of the call letting Koehn know she had been named a 2015 Harry S. Truman Scholar. Koehn is the 18th KU student to be named a Truman Scholar and the only 2015 recipient from the state of Kansas. Earlier this month, she was also named a 2015 Udall Scholar. And in spite of a distance of more than 10,800 kilometers and 11 time zones, Koehn’s thrill from hearing the news from the chancellor came through loud and clear. “Ashlie’s experience at KU epitomizes a quality undergraduate experience. She challenged herself in her coursework, exposed herself to different research opportunities, studied abroad in Germany, Switzerland and Kyrgyzstan, and participated in both student government and community service projects,” Gray-Little said. “This is quite a year for Ashlie. Her hard work is a wonderful reflection on her and also a great reflection on the university, and we all congratulate her.” Each new Truman Scholar receives up to $30,000 for graduate study. Scholars also receive priority admission and supplemental financial aid at some premier graduate institutions, leadership training, career and graduate school counseling, and special internship opportunities within the federal government. Koehn, a member of KU’s nationally recognized University Honors Program, is majoring in environmental studies, economics and international studies. Her goal after earning her KU degree is to pursue a master’s degree in economics at either the London School of Economics or the University of Reading, with a focus on the economics of climate change. In 2014, she received KU’s Newman Civic Engagement Award for her work establishing the Coalition against Slavery and Trafficking. Her involvement with the issue was sparked by Hannah Britton, associate professor of political science and women, gender, and sexuality studies, who hosted national conference on contemporary slavery at KU three years ago. “Ashlie and I met several times to think about what KU students could contribute to the issue of slavery and human trafficking, and the result was her founding of KU CAST,” Britton said. “After a year as president, Ashlie successfully handed the organization over to the next student leader. She demonstrated her strong leadership qualities by setting a unique goal and then pursuing it with her sense of passion, engagement and dedication. No matter the country or context, her leadership strength is evident in her coursework, her public service and her work experiences.” The University Honors Program works with a campus committee to select KU’s nominees for the Truman Scholarship and supports them during the application process. Anne Wallen, assistant director of national fellowships and scholarships, noted it was an amazing ruse to pull off the surprise. Originally, the call was set up to be between Wallen and Koehn. “I was totally not prepared to be greeted by Chancellor Gray-Little, but it was an amazing surprise for sure,” Koehn said. “As a first-generation student, it took time to learn the collegiate system, but my parents taught me to be resourceful and independent from a young age and KU and the Kansas Air National Guard have provided me with the opportunities to drive me into the future, both at graduate school and in my career. I plan to use the Truman Scholarship to pursue a career as an environmental economist helping to shape future trade agreements and leverage action on important international environmental issues, particularly concerning climate change.” Koehn also had a surprise of her own for the chancellor — the meal she was helping to prepare was not exactly typical Kansas dinner fare. On the menu with her host family in Kyrgyzstan on Monday was a traditional Kyrgyz meal called Beshbarmak, or “five fingers,” because you eat it with your hands. The dish is made of horse and sheep and was being prepared as a birthday celebration for Koehn’s host mom. Chancellor Gray-Little, as she signed off from Skype, made sure to encourage Koehn to enjoy her Beshbarmak. Koehn is the daughter of Rodney and Carolyn Koehn of Burns. She graduated from Fredric Remington High School in Moundridge. She is an active member of the Kansas Air National Guard and currently on leave while studying abroad in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She is a member of the KU Global Scholars Program and a past member of the Student Senate. In addition to being named a 2015 Truman and Udall scholar, she was named a 2014 Boren Scholar and Gilman Scholar and in 2013 was named the Kansas Air National Guard Airman of the Year.

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