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Brain fingerprinting is a technique that measures recognition of familiar stimuli by measuring electrical brain wave responses to words, phrases, or pictures that are presented on a computer screen. Brain fingerprinting was invented by Dr. Lawrence Farwell. The theory is that the suspect's reaction to the details of an event or activity will reflect if the suspect had prior knowledge of the event or activity. This test uses the Memory and Encoding Related Multifaceted Electroencephalographic Response to detect familiarity reaction. The person to be tested wears a special headband with electronic sensors that measure the EEG from several locations on the scalp. In order to calibrate the brain fingerprinting system, the testee is presented with a series of irrelevant stimuli, words, and pictures, and a series of relevant stimuli, words, and pictures. The test subject's brain response to these two different types of stimuli allow the testor to determine if the measured brain responses to test stimuli, called probes, are more similar to the relevant or irrelevant responses.
The technique uses the fact that an electrical signal known as P300 is emitted from an individual's brain approximately 300 milliseconds after it is confronted with a stimulus that has special significance to that individual (e.g. a murder weapon or a victim's face). Because it is based on EEG signals, the system does not require the testee to issue verbal responses to questions or stimuli.
Brain fingerprinting uses electrical brain responses to detect the presence or absence of information stored in the brain. Because it depends only on information stored in the brain and cognitive brain responses, brain fingerprinting does not depend on the emotions of the subject, nor is it affected by emotional responses. Brain fingerprinting is fundamentally different from the polygraph (lie-detector), which measures emotion-based physiological signals such as heart rate, sweating, and blood pressure. Also, unlike polygraph testing, it does not attempt to determine whether or not the subject is lying or telling the truth. Rather, it measures the subject’s brain response to relevant words, phrases, or pictures to detect whether or not the relevant information is stored in the subject’s brain.
Background and terminology Edit
"Brain fingerprinting" is a computer-based test that is designed to discover, document, and provide evidence of guilty knowledge regarding crimes , and identify members of dormant terrorist cells. It has also been used to evaluate brain functioning as a means of early detection of Alzheimer’s and other cognitively degenerative diseases, and to evaluate the effectiveness of advertising by measuring brain responses. This is primarily a discussion of the Dr. Larry Farwell's paper, “Using Brain MERMER Testing to Detect Concealed Knowledge Despite Efforts to Conceal” , published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences in 2001 by Dr. Farwell and FBI Supervisory Special Agent Sharon Smith of the FBI. This paper describes a test of brain fingerprinting, a technology based on EEG that is purported to be able to detect the existence of prior knowledge or memory in the brain. The P300 occurs when the tested subject is presented with a rarely occurring stimulus that they feel is significant. When an irrelevant stimulus is presented, a P300 is not expected to occur. The P300 is widely known in the scientific community, and is also known as an Oddball-evoked P300. A similar response occurs in as an N400 during syntactic or semantic processing and is elicited by inappropriate words or strange grammar structures.
While researching the P300, the author of this paper, Dr. Farwell, created a more detailed test that not only included the P300, but also observes the stimulus response up to 800ms after the stimulus. He calls this technique a MERMER, memory and encoding related multifaceted electroencephalographic response. This P300, an electrically positive component, maximal at the midline parietal area of the head, has a peak latency of approximately 300 to 800 ms. The MERMER includes the P300 and also includes an electrically negative component, maximal at the midline frontal area, with an onset latency of approximately 800-1200ms.
Ethical considerations Edit
While the ethical considerations of quantifying the electrical potential of the human brain with relation to specific thoughts and feelings might seem to some people to be highly invasive, it is important to realize the value of this technology to the judicial system (especially individuals wrongfully accused of crimes). Every subject who has undergone brain fingerprinting examination at this time has done so voluntarily, and as Senator Charles Grassley stated with relation to brain fingerprinting: "It seems to me that if we are interested in making sure that the innocent go free, and that the guilty are punished, any technological instrument that can help us make a determination of guilt or innocence, we ought to know about it."
Current uses and research Edit
Dr. Farwell has tentatively explored the use of this technology as a routine test for several forms of employment, especially in dealing with sensitive military and foreign intelligence screening. With clearly defined probes based on valid intelligence, it might be possible to determine if an applicant for employment had ever been trained in espionage or as a terrorist. Such screening procedures might potentially be much more effective than polygraph screening, which to this date, has never been shown to have prevented an act of espionage. Research into brain fingerprinting has also been funded by the CIA. One such study showed that several different types of stimuli could be used to determine whether a subject was “information present” or “information absent” with respect to several different kinds of information. A group of subjects enacted a simulated espionage and were then subjected to relevant stimuli in the form of pictorial probes. Another set of stimuli were presented to naval medical personnel in the form of phrases and acronyms that would only be known to a military medical professional. A third set of stimuli were presented to individuals who had actually been involved in crimes by way of verbal probes. In each case, brain fingerprinting correctly identified those individuals who were “information present” and “information absent” in each group, thus, showing its validity across several different types of stimuli and in a variety of different situations involving different types of information stored in the brain.
In a study with the FBI, Dr. Farwell used brain fingerprinting to show that test subjects from specific groups could be identified by their relation to specific knowledge which would only be known to members of those groups. A group of 17 FBI agents and 4 non-agents were exposed to stimuli (words, phrases, and acronyms) that were flashed on a computer screen. The probe stimuli contained information that would be common knowledge only to someone within federal law enforcement. With 100% accuracy, brain fingerprinting identified the agents from the non-agents. A further study was able to differentiate between individuals who had participated in real life events and those who had not. This research has been documented in the Journal of Forensic Sciences.
In over 170 cases, Brain Fingerprinting testing has resulted in a 3% instance of indeterminate results and a 97% instance of clear determinations of “information present” or “information absent.” 100% of the determinations have been correct. There have been no false negatives and no false positives. (However, it is not known whether such devices as the SHAKTI are able to compromise the technique via implanted conductors and supporting microelectronic technology.)
Farwell's MERMER has been ruled admissible as evidence in court in the reversal of the murder conviction of Terry Harrington. Following a hearing on post-conviction relief on November 14, 2000, an Iowa District Court held that Dr. Farwell’s Brain Fingerprinting P-300 test results were admissible as scientific evidence as defined in Congress Ruling 702 and in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceutical. Harrington was freed by the Iowa Supreme Court on constitutional grounds. Brain Fingerprinting testing was also “instrumental in obtaining a confession and guilty plea” from serial killer James B. Grinder, according to Sheriff Robert Dawson of Macon County, Missouri. In August 1999 Dr. Farwell conducted a Brain Fingerprinting test on Grinder, showing that information stored in his brain matched the details of an, until then, unsolved murder. Following the test results, Grinder faced an almost certain conviction and probable death sentence. Grinder pled guilty to the rape and murder of Julie Helton in exchange for a life sentence without parole. He is currently serving that sentence and has since confessed to the murders of three other women.
Brain Fingerprinting has also, from its conception, been a medical tool which can be used to detect symptoms of Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia before many of the more degenerative effects have set in. With early diagnosis, the progression of Alzheimer's symptoms can often be delayed through the use of medications and through dietary and lifestyle changes.
- Dr. Farwell's Brain Fingerprinting Laboratories website
- [Journal of Forensic Sciences publication on Brain Fingerprinting (Farwell and Smith, 2001)
- PBS Innovations broadcast on Brain Fingerprinting
- US News and World Report article on Brain Fingerprinting
- Seattle Post-Intelligencer article on Brain Fingerprinting
- Law Enforcement Technology article on Brain Fingerprinting
- Psychology Today article on Brain Fingerprinting
- TIME Magazine article on Dr. Farwell and Brain Fingerprinting
- http://www.courttv.com/news/feature/liedetection_ctv.html Court TV report on Brain Fingerprinting]
- Discussion of legal and scientific critiques of Farwell's theories
- Simple, Effective Countermeasures to P300-based Tests of Detection of Concealed Information (PDF)
- "It's the thought that counts for the guilty", The Observer, April 25, 2004
- "Brainwave Sensor Touted as Tool in Counter-Terrorism", Neurotech Reports (undated)
- OpenEEG — An open source hardware and software project to enable hobbyists to build their own EEG machine (mostly for biofeedback purposes).
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