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The Lying Brain

Lie Detection in Science and Science Fiction

Melissa M. Littlefield

Publication Year: 2011

The Lying Brain is a study to take seriously. Its argument is timely, clear, and of particular importance to the enlargement of our understanding of the relationships among science studies, literary studies, and technology studies. ---Ronald Schleifer, University of Oklahoma Real and imagined machines, including mental microscopes, thought translators, and polygraphs, have long promised to detect deception in human beings. Now, via fMRI and EEG, neuroscientists seem to have found what scientists, lawyers, and law enforcement officials have sought for over a century: foolproof lie detection. But are these new lie detection technologies any different from their predecessors? The Lying Brain is the first book to explore the cultural history of an array of lie detection technologies: their ideological assumptions, the scientific and fictional literatures that create and market them, and the literacies required for their interpretation. By examining a rich archive of materials about lie detection---from science to science fiction---The Lying Brain demonstrates the interconnections of science, literature, and popular culture in the development and dissemination of deception detection in the American cultural imagination. As Melissa Littlefield demonstrates, neuroscience is not building a more accurate lie detector; it is simply recycling centuries-old ideologies about deception and its detection. Cover art: "Human Brain" © Denis Barbulet, courtesy of Shutterstock.com

Published by: University of Michigan Press


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pp. i-xii

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pp. 1-17

In 2008, the Harvard Business Review listed fMRI lie detection among its “Breakthrough Ideas.” The inclusion of this brain-imaging technology is somewhat surprising given that neither the technology nor its application to deception is new: functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was developed in the early 1990s as a way to monitor brain functions; almost immediately, the technology was employed in laboratory experiments that attempted to detect deception in the brain.

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1. Selling the Psychological Detective: Hugo Münsterberg’s Applied Psychology and The Achievements of Luther Trant, 1907–30

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pp. 18-47

In his 1908 collection of essays, On the Witness Stand: Essays on Psychology and Crime, Hugo Münsterberg expounds upon one of the principles that would inform lie detection for the next century: “the hidden feeling betrays itself ” (113).¹

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2. The Science of Lying in a Laboratory: William Marston’s Deceptive Consciousness, 1913–22

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pp. 48-66

Known for analyzing “baby parties” at the local sorority, creating the iconic, lasso-toting Wonder Woman, and penning the salacious history of Julius Caesar’s private life,¹ William Moulton Marston also invented several consequential lie detection protocols in the early decades of the twentieth century. A Harvard-trained lawyer (1918) with a PhD in psychology from the same institution (1921), Marston was convinced, like his mentor Hugo Münsterberg before him, that the emotional disturbances he associated with lying would necessarily produce physiological reactions.

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3. Thought in Translation: Reading the Mind in Science and Science Fiction, 1930–50

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pp. 67-98

In October 2003, PBS and Wired Magazine featured brain-based lie detection on their new show Wired Science. The show and the imaging technology it featured were advertised with the caption “We’ve got mind reading down to a science.” The unspeci‹ed we is reminiscent of the ever-vigilant Esper Police in Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man (1951/1953) or perhaps the Thought Police of George Orwell’s 1984 (1949).

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4. Without a Trace: Brain Fingerprinting, Biometrics, and Body Snatching

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pp. 99-117

From Luther Trant’s examination of the marks of crime on men, to William Marston’s hypotheses about the deceptive consciousness, to the mechanics of mind reading, I have illustrated several ways in which literature, science, and the media share the assumption that deception leaves a trace in our physiology. Instead of merely looking to the crime scene for fingerprints and bloodstains, police have been asked to turn their gaze on the suspect in new and technologically mediated ways.

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5. A Tremor in the Brain: fMRI Lie Detection, Brain Fingerprinting, and the Organ of Deceit in Post–9/11 America

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pp. 118-140

In his 1996 novel The Truth Machine, James Halperin predicts that an altruistic child prodigy will design a foolproof and widely deployable lie detector by 2024.¹ The Armstrong Cerebral Image Processor (ACIP) will be based on a “combination of physiologically enhanced MRI and cerebral image reconstruction” (176). This “Truth Machine” would be a far cry, technologically speaking, from traditional polygraphs...

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Coda: Lie Detection as Patterned Repetition—From The Demolished Man to The Truth Machine

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pp. 141-148

A book on the cultural history of lie detection could have begun with any number of milestones: Lombroso’s work with the plethysmograph in the late nineteenth century, the establishment of the Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory at Northwestern in 1929, Wonder Woman’s truth lasso (circa 1942), Fred Inbau’s first disciplinary manual on the polygraph (1942), or even with the simple proposition that on or around 1917 the lie detector was invented.


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pp. 149-172

Works Cited

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pp. 173-190


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pp. 191-203

E-ISBN-13: 9780472027026
E-ISBN-10: 0472027026
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472051489
Print-ISBN-10: 0472051482

Page Count: 216
Illustrations: 3 halftones, 2 line art
Publication Year: 2011