Everyone knows about the polygraph. Funny enough, it was invented by William Moulton Marston who was also the mind that came up with the DC Comics character Wonder Woman. Now you know why she carries her “lasso of truth”! But familiarity with the polygraph also means that plenty of people know how to defeat or otherwise spoof the system. You can squeeze your butt cheeks together creating tension in the body that will throw off the readings. A tack can be placed in the shoe and pressed down on during questioning. In theory, the polygraph examiner can ask you to remove your shoes and sit on a pad that will detect your deception techniques but it’s too easy to just bite your tongue…literally.

You can also spoof the system by being brutally honest when the tester asks his control questions. You see, he has to catch you in a lie so that he can establish what you baseline reading looks like and then differentiate between when you tell the truth and when you tell a lie. If you answer all the control questions correctly, the tester will get frustrated and keep trying to trip you up and ask questions that are embarrassing enough that you are compelled to lie.

Can you imagine sitting there rigged up to a polygraph getting two hours of control questions thrown at you while the tester tries to catch you in a lie?

“Have you ever had sexual relations with a man, a woman, another man, a rodeo clown, and a farm animal at the same time?”

“…yes.”

The first time I considered that fMRI machines could potentially be used for lie detection purposes was when I read the novel “Daemon” by Daniel Suarez. In his book, Suarez describes a very interesting automated computer virus that becomes something of a social movement. In order to test a new member’s suitability for membership into the group, they basically feed them into a fMRI machine and a computer begins asking them questions.

I thought it was an interesting idea, but merely a cool science fiction concept that the author had dreamed up. About a year later I had a conversation with an industrial psychologist who told me that certain corporations and three-letter agencies are using the fMRI for lie detection purposes, basically as a counter-intelligence technique. I pressed for specifically which organizations are doing this.

Are fMRI Machines the CIA's Unbeatable Lie Detector Test?

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“Certain governmental agencies and corporations.”

I can only speculate on which ones of course.

Here is a layperson’s summary of how the fMRI works. A functional Magnetic Resonance Machine, or fMRI for short, essentially scans the human brain by measuring BOLD, Blood Oxygen Level Dependence levels. When the human brain is stimulated, certain neural pathways are activated causing blood to flow to one part of the brain or another. In this manner, the fMRI is able to analyze which parts of the brain are active and when.

The word on the street is that you cannot spoof the fMRI the way you could a polygraph machine or the person giving the test. The fMRI does not require you to answer in anyway, the question can be asked and then the BOLD levels in you brain are examined by fMRI scans. Clenching butt cheeks, biting your tongue, or other deception techniques are completely worthless in this situation. As far as I know there are no counter-measures that can be conscienceless employed by the person being tested. However, there has been lot’s of research into this subject matter but it remains highly classified by organizations such as the CIA.

Speaking of which, the latest and greatest fMRI machine appears to be the Siemens 3T Megnetom model. Siemens is known to have an interesting relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency. After all, it was Siemens architecture that was hacked by the infamous Stuxnet virus in Iran. We also know that the CIA has something of an obsession with cognitive science dating back to the well known MK Ultra experiments. I consider the huge number of psychologists employed by the CIA to be one of that agency’s dirty little secrets.

Allegedly, the practice of using fMRI lie detectors is something that kicked into high gear after 9/11. According to the head of research at the Department of Defense Polygraph Institute, “Post-2001, there are 50 labs in the US alone doing this kind of work.”

With the research completed and experiments conducted, it is highly likely that the CIA, NSA, various other intelligence services and commercial interests fronting for intelligence operations began to use this new unbeatable lie detector machine to periodically test the loyalty of their employees.

So the proliferation of this new technology is going to stop the next Robert Hanssen cold in his tracks, right? Maybe not. The industrial psychologist I spoke to told me that yes, in fact there was a way to spoof the fMRI. If you knew the right pharmaceuticals to take prior to the fMRI test, it would artificially alter the BOLD levels in your brain, thereby throwing off the results of the test.

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I had to do some digging to get an idea of what kind of pharmaceuticals those might be. According to a professional journal called Biophysics, an experiment was conducted with fMRI technology that concluded in part:

“We have demonstrated that BOLD-contrast MRI of brain can track the changes in blood oxygenation expected from anesthetic inhaled gases and from insulin-induced hypoglycemia that change the physiological state of the animal. Since the contrast is entirely dependent on blood oxygenation, it is determined by the balance of supply (blood flow) and demand(extraction by tissue) of oxygen. Under normoxic conditions arterial blood is fully oxygenated and does not contribute to BOLD contrast, while venous blood vessels containing deoxygenated blood contribute dark lines to the image. The results shown here indicatethat BOLD contrast can be used to noninvasively monitor in real time the blood oxygenation levels of brain areas in response to central nervous system drugs that affect basal metabolism or blood flow. Although BOLD-image contrast is enhanced at high magnetic fields, the effect is observed at 4.7 T*, a field strength that is close to the highest field strength (4 T) presently available for human subjects.”

In other words, drugs can be used to manipulate BOLD levels. Even a relatively common prescription drug such as Valium could throw off the results of an fMRI counter-intelligence session. Skilled medical practitioners could almost certainly devise a chemical cocktail that would show fMRI technicians and scientists a truthful looking fMRI scan when the subject was actually lying through their teeth, or neurons as it were.

I wrote about how this might work in my novel, Reflexive Fire.  So here is your heads up, everything that follows below is a work of fiction and should be taken as such!  This scene takes place about halfway through Reflexive Fire when our protagonist has just come off a mission to Burma and his rather dubious employers have some questions to ask him.

“What is this all about?” Deckard finally asked, looking around suspiciously.

“As I said,” the mystery man droned. “Just an interview.”

They walked through another set of automatic doors, Deckard’s eyes frozen on the words above the entrance: Department of Neurology.

Footsteps rounded the corner behind them, the commando turning to see a trio of trigger men striding up from behind. Middle Eastern looking, wearing bootleg American clothing with knock off sunglasses perched on top of their heads. MP-5 sub-machine guns rested comfortably in their hands. He studied them carefully with just a glance, and they eyeballed him right back.

Hezbollah by the looks of them, flown in from Lebanon. Hopefully, they didn’t recognize him. Deckard grimaced, knowing that he was none too popular in that part of the world.

Three more terrorists walked from a side room and took position to their front, effectively boxing them in. There was no turning back now.

Deeper into the empty hospital wing they crossed the final threshold, Deckard realizing what was happening with a shock. The placard on the door announced that they were entering the fMRI clinic. He had never been through the process himself, but had heard the stories about psychological torture sessions carried out on high level NSA and CIA officials.

The Islamic fundamentalists waited outside, standing guard, while Deckard and the suit went into the changing room. Lockers lined the walls, a hospital gown already laid out for him.

“The fMRI emits a magnetic resonance thirty thousand times stronger than the pull of gravity,” the mystery man stated. “It is required that you get changed and leave behind all metallic objects. Walk through that door as soon as you are finished and we will get started.”

“What about the shrapnel in my leg?”

“What shrapnel?”

“A souvenir from Burkina Faso a few years ago. Won’t the MRI yank it out?”

“Probably. Luckily for you, we are in a hospital. We have people on staff who can attend to you if it rips out a vein or artery.”

Ouch. Sounds painful.

“Please hurry, Mr. O’Brien. We have people waiting and our time is valuable as I’m sure is yours.”

The suit exited the changing room, the door sliding shut with a click, leaving him alone under humming fluorescent lights.

Cursing, Deckard took his AK-103 off its sling and set it down. The rifle was filthy with mud but had held up just fine when he needed it. Next, he pulled the Glock out of its holster to lay it down next to the rifle. It was also thick with carbon and covered in dirt, yet no one had complained about the handgun’s performance.

Shrugging out of his combat rig, Deckard laid it on the floor as well. The AK magazines in it were empty; the pouches that had held fragmentation grenades were hanging with loose flaps, empty as well. The cylinder shaped pouch that had held a thermite grenade was hanging open too. He had used the red colored device that had been inside to burn Peng’s mansion to the ground.

Still other pouches held a water bladder, pistol magazines, sheathed combat knife, escape and evasion gear, a handheld GPS system, garrote wire, night vision monocular, and other tools of the trade.

Dumping his gear he did a quick circuit, opening the locker doors and finding nothing inside. Two were locked. Squatting down he unzipped the main compartment on his combat rig and retrieved his lock pick set. Going to work on the locked door, he placed the tension wrench in the lock and applied light pressure while flicking the tumblers with a raking tool.

Deckard knew he had to work fast.

The tension wrench turned, the lock opening. Inside were a pair of slippers and a white lab coat hanging on a hook. Rifling through the pockets he turned up nothing but lint and a ballpoint pen.

Peeling off his fatigue jacket, he cast it aside, where it landed with a plop in the corner of the room. The sweat and grime was setting in with the stench of rotting food.

Going to work on the next lock, he held his breath, hoping to find what he was looking for.

He was nearing the drone zone. Awake for nearly three days straight, the former soldier was having trouble concentrating. The bright overhead lights seemed to pierce his skull, his recall fading, making everything more difficult. The simple five pin lock would have been child’s play under any other circumstance, but now he was struggling just to apply the correct level of pressure on the metal tools in his hands.

Looking over his shoulder, he expected the goon squad to rush in at any moment, forcefully dragging him out, and holding him down while the MRI scanned his brain.

Finally, the lock popped open. Flinging the door open, Deckard tore through the clothes he found inside before his eyes froze on a bottle resting on the top shelf. Snatching it in his hand, he looked at the label on the pill bottle.

Bingo.

* * *

“Mr. O’Brien.” The suit pushed open the door irritably. “Please, we don’t have all day.”

Deckard was just finishing tying the drawstring on his medical gown.

“Sorry about that,” he replied with a nervous smile. “I smell like death warmed over.”

“This way, please,” his new handler responded flatly while holding the door open for him.

“Thanks,” Deckard grumbled as he passed by.

Immediately his eyes went to the doublesided mirror that stretched across the far wall. Quickly shifting his gaze to the fMRI machine that took up most of the room, he walked towards it. Swallowing hard, he was pretty sure he was screwed. Although he wasn’t a doctor, he could read the label on the side of the machine.

It was a Siemens 3T Magnetom. He might not be familiar with the specific machine, but he did know that 3T stood for three Teslas, a unit of measurement that indicated that this was the most advanced type of model available, offering the highest resolution brain scans.

Nowhere to hide. Not even in your own mind.

“Please lay down on the table now.”

Deckard sat down on the cold slab hesitantly.

The functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging device worked by measuring the blood oxygen level dependence, or BOLD level in the human brain. Stimulation would cause the blood flow in the brain the change. Certain neural pathways would be activated, and the neural cells themselves would demand more glucose to consume, increasing the blood flow to that portion of the brain.

The 3T Magnetom would create an extremely powerful magnetic field that would measure the inner working of the mind based on BOLD levels and show a three-dimensional model of Deckard’s brain on a computer monitor. As stimulus was provided, experts could analyze which parts of his brain were active and when.

The thought of a high tech mind fuck disgusted him, but it was too late, with too much at stake to blow it now. He’d do his best to spoof the system. If that didn’t work, all he had at his disposal was a small fiberglass knife hidden in his sock. Not only were they reading his mind but had also found a way to make sure he was disarmed, all of his hidden party favors left with his fatigues and combat equipment with no metal allowed in the room.

Once he was lying down, the suit came up beside him and fastened several straps around his face to prevent Deckard from moving and throwing off their readings.

“Very good,” the spectacle-wearing man commented almost to himself.

Sliding the slab forward on its rollers, Deckard’s head was now inside the machine as it hummed steadily, someone on the other side of the mirror starting it up.

“Try to relax, this should only take an hour or so.”

“Fucking hell!” Deckard screamed as several small metal fragments were torn from his calf muscle, ripping flesh before sticking to the side of the fMRI machine.

The suit calmly walked out and returned with heavy bandages.

“I’m sealing your wounds with medical glue. Keep an eye on it over the next few days. We don’t want you getting an infection.”

“You’re all heart, thanks.”

The door slammed shut leaving him alone. The half dozen Arabs who stood guard outside were probably confiscating his equipment in case things went bad.

Suddenly the speaker system came to life, the suit’s calming voice speaking in his ear.

“Your name is Jake O’Brien.”

“Yes,” Deckard answered.

“Mr. O’Brien, please shut up. Your response is not necessary, just listen and stay still.”

They didn’t need him to say anything, just measure his BOLD levels in response to each question. The fMRI would take one scan a second, it was a variation of an event-based MRI that would essentially read his mind.

“Your name is Jake O’Brien,” the voice repeated.

Several seconds passed allowing time for the scans. Like a polygraph, a series of control questions would be asked to establish a baseline. Precedents had to be formed, sample scans indicated, so that when the real questioning began, they could determine what his mind looked like when it was told the truth and what it looked like when it was told a lie.

“You were born in Raleigh, North Carolina.”

What the technicians running the lie detector test didn’t realize was that he was working under alias and all of their control questions were lies from the get go.

“Your mother’s name was Whitney Shepard.”

Deckard breathed normally and allowed himself to relax, making no attempt at subterfuge. The more convoluted the results the better.

“Your father’s name was Danny O’Brien.”

The questions regarding Deckard’s false past continued for what seemed like forever, but was probably only twenty minutes or so. After covering his supposed childhood and military career, they finally began getting around to recent events.

“You are the battalion commander of Samruk International.”

It was a struggle to keep his eyes open. He was completely exhausted and the grilling wasn’t making things better.

“You did not conduct combat operations in Burma.”

Some negatives were occasionally thrown out to mix things up a little.

“You were involved in the murder of Stevan Djokovic.”

Deckard began reciting his seven times tables in his head.

“You plotted the execution of your Executive Officer.”

Seven times seven equals fifty…no, forty nine.

“You personally led the assault on a casino in Panghsang.”

“You allowed a situation to develop that resulted in the death of Stevan Djokovic.”

They kept coming back to Djokovic, once again confirming that he had been a plant inside the battalion. They were suspicious. No doubt, Djokovic had sent them scathing reports about Deckard before he was killed.

The questions kept coming, harder and faster then before, trying to trip him up.

“You will follow any orders given to you.”

“You will not disobey your instructions.”

“You have no moral objections to ordering your men to certain death.”

“You ordered two prisoners executed in Afghanistan.”

“You ordered the murder of Stevan Djokovic.”

“You were born in Raleigh, North Carolina.”

“The assault of the UWSA headquarters was successful.”

Deckard blinked hard, getting confused as the minutes dragged on. The baseline questions may have been invalid, but his guard was lowered due to exhaustion. He had one fail-safe, the one that was keeping him artificially calm.

“You fired on the Chinese military in Burma.”

Popping a couple of Valium pills in the changing room, they had taken effect just minutes later and would alter how his brain responded to questioning. With the basic physiology of the brain altered by the drug, the entire results of the tests would be skewed and invalid. The drug contained active benzodiazepines, which created a number of effects, including sedation, muscle relaxation, as well as anti-anxiety. With the Valium running its course, the blood oxidization levels in Deckard’s brain would remain at a fixed rate regardless of the probing questions he was subjected too.

“You never question the validly of the orders you receive.”

At least that was what he speculated.

“Your mother’s maiden name is Shepard.”

* * *

Two cognitive psychologists, two statisticians, and three MRI technicians poured over three-dimensional models of Deckard’s brain from behind the double-sided mirror. What they discovered was as frustrating as it was bizarre.

The imaging was fed through a computer system that then displayed the graphical representation of the subject’s brain while statements were given or questions asked. Different colors would show up on the three-dimensional model brain, indicating which neural pathways were currently active.

The team was the best in a very elite field of medicine and science. Usually they were tasked to evaluate high-ranking members of intelligence agencies or corporate executives of the Fortune One Hundred set. Billions of dollars and vital national security secrets rested on their shoulders on a daily basis.

In ten years they had never failed to identify a traitor or corporate spy. Zero false positives. Federal raids of the suspects’ homes and property after the team’s confirmation always validated their findings.

Tension filled the room. They were closing in on two hours, longer then they’d ever spent with a single subject in the past. The data shown on the computer monitors was opaque, strange, insane even. They were assured that the subject was a highly capable military commander, but the readings said otherwise.

Based on the scientific evidence alone, their subject was being told lies and truth all at the same time. They had only seen this sort of thing in medical studies performed on schizophrenics at mental hospitals.

One of the statisticians rubbed her hands nervously.

Who was he?

What was he?

Finally the lead psychologist, a PhD from Harvard University, hurled the paper readouts in his hand across the room.

“Fuck.”

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 Featured image courtesy of Wired Magazine.