fMRI-based lie detection; animal consciousness; media violence; modern-day Phineas Gage; and more

fMRI court controversy

A US judge has ruled that fMRI-based lie-detection evidence is inadmissible in a murder trial. According to local media reports, Judge Eric M. Johnson of the Montgomery County Circuit Court, Maryland heard evidence from experts including Frank Haist, a professor of psychiatry who was representing the company No Lie MRI, and New York University psychologist Liz Phelps, who was sceptical of the technology. In the absence of expert consensus, the judge said local statutes meant the evidence was inadmissible. Nonetheless, the case is just the latest example of neuroscience technologies finding their way into the courtroom.

Last year an Italian judge commuted the sentence of a woman convicted of murder after fMRI evidence purportedly showed
a series of structural abnormalities in her brain relative to controls. And according to a Royal Society report published last year on neuroscience and the law, the number of US cases in which neurological evidence or behavioural genetics is submitted has been rising steadily over the last decade. The same report warned that a particular weakness of fMRI lie-detection is the ease with which suspects can deploy countermeasures.

This point was at the heart of the recent debate in the Montgomery court. Both the defence, who wanted to submit the fMRI evidence, and the prosecution, cited a study published in 2011 (see that showed distinct brain activity in participants who lied about seeing their birth date appear onscreen. However, the same study showed that making a subtle toe movement to specific non-birth-dates was enough to undermine drastically the accuracy of the lie-detection.

Coincidentally, a study published this August showed that judges considering a fictional case were more lenient in their sentencing of a psychopath when they heard neurobiological evidence about the causes of the condition, including information on associated brain abnormalities ( Another relevant study published last year found that mock jurors were particularly persuaded by fMRI lie-detection evidence compared with more traditional technologies like the polygraph (

Professor Paul Burgess of UCL, a psychologist who’s been involved in a UK court case where brain-based evidence was submitted, told us that neuropsychologists are likely to play a growing role in court as our understanding of psychological and neurological conditions affecting behaviour increases, and as new technologies are created for detecting these conditions. ‘However,’ he added, ‘this role is always likely to concern the degree to which the brain scan (or other form
of evidence) can be considered a good indicator of the state of mind of the individual at the time of the action. At our current state of knowledge, most people (scientists included) do not consider there to be a transparent and inevitable correspondence between this kind of evidence and the action being considered.’

Regarding the worry that brain scan and genetic evidence may be disproportionately influential, Burgess predicted this may change as the general public becomes more familiar with this kind of information. ‘Here the psychologist also has a key educational role
to play,’ he said.
- Christian Jarrett

Make the ethical everyday

Following a succession of research fraud scandals in social psychology, the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) has published an open letter to its members ( SPSP President Patricia Devine, professor of social psychology at the University of Wisconsin Madison, said that opportunity came out of crisis and she urged social psychologists to ‘make discussions of ethical behavior part of the everyday discussion in your lab’.

The organisation has appointed a Task Force on Responsible Conduct, chaired by Jennifer Crocker of Ohio State University, which first met in January this year. An initial report from the group is available ( and includes a number of recommendations, including setting up a website for replications and failed replications to be deposited, encouraging journals to publish replication special issues, and encouraging but not mandating data sharing.

Professor Devine said her organisation was also planning to hold a symposium devoted to these issues at their meeting in New Orleans next January. ‘SPSP is taking initiative to develop new workshops, policies, and standards for responsible conduct in research,’ she said.
The SPSP was founded in 1974 after breaking away from the APA and has over 7000 members worldwide. The organisation publishes Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, one of the most prestigious journals in the field, and a favoured outlet of Diederik Stapel, Dirk Smeesters and Lawrence Sanna, the three social psychologists who recently departed their posts under scandal. SPSP also publishes Personality and Social Psychology Review – also highly regarded in the field – and Social Psychological and Personality Science, a new electronic journal that’s published jointly with other social psychology bodies.

The SPSP letter and plans attracted a luke-warm reception online. Dan Simons at the University of Illinois felt that as a publisher of major journals, the organisation hadn’t gone far enough. But what troubled him most was Levine’s claim that one SPSP Task Force objective was to promote the scientific credibilityof the discipline. ‘Perhaps a good place to start would be taking actual steps to bolster the foundations of the science itself,’ Simons wrote on his blog (
Elsewhere the influential Neuroskeptic blog ( complained that the SPSP report failed to acknowledge that ‘enterprising researchers’ have already established a website for replication attempts: (see also the Reproducibility Project, and our May 2012 issue). The pseudonymous blogger also argued that ‘replicability’, not replication, is the key to effective science: ‘Failure to replicate findings is a symptom of problems with those original findings, rather than being a problem in and of itself. Good results replicate; we want better results to be published.’
- Christian Jarrett

Animal consciousness

Psychologists and cognitive neuroscientists are among the signatories to a new declaration of the presence of consciousness in animals, ‘including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses’. The Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, was published at the Francis Crick Memorial Conference on Consciousness in Human and non-Human Animals, held in July.

Written by the neuroscientist Philip Low, the declaration was edited by the psychologists Jaak Panksepp and Diana Reiss (among others), and was signed by all attendees at the conference in the presence of Stephen Hawking.

‘The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states,’ the declaration states. ‘Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors.’ cj


Epilepsy Action is offering funding for three-year PhD studentships. The studentship should have an epilepsy-related psychosocial or applied clinical non-laboratory research focus. Applications should be made by prospective supervisors based at UK universities. Closing date is 31 October 2012.

The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour has Research Grants for up to £5000 available to help support promising pilot research projects and small-scale projects. The grants are to fund travel to conduct collaborative research or to bring a collaborator to the applicant’s institution. To be eligible to apply applicants must be a current member of the ASAB and have been a member for a minimum of one year prior to applying for funding. There are three closing dates a year: the next is 1 November.

The Department of Health’s Policy Research Programme has extended the deadline for the receipt of research proposals for the Suicide Prevention Research Initiative. This is to allow researchers to formulate their research proposals in line with the Suicide Prevention Strategy (published on 10 September 2012). Within the call five priority research areas are identified, including how to reduce the risk of suicide in people with a history of self-harm, how the media can be better supported in delivering sensible and sensitive approaches to suicide and suicidal behaviour, and how the health and social care system can provide better information and support to those bereaved or affected by a suicide. The deadline is 13 November 2012.

The government of Canada provides Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships. The objectives of the programme are to attract and retain top-tier postdoctoral talent at Canadian research institutions, develop leadership skills and to position fellowship holders to be the future research leaders. Under this scheme both Canadian citizens and non-citizens can apply for a two-year fellowship at a Canadian institution. Further details are available online. The closing date for applications is
1 November 2012. 

Media Violence

The Commission on Media Violence, established by the International Societyfor Research on Aggression (ISRA), has concluded that ‘research clearly shows that media violence consumption increases the relative risk of aggression, defined as intentional harm to another person that could be verbal, relational, or physical.’ Chaired by psychologist Professor Barbara Krahé at the University of Potsdam, the Commission published its final report and recommendations in August, in the journal Aggressive Behaviour ( The full text is also available via the ISRA website (

Lost letters                                                                                  Deploying the lost-letter technique used by Stanley Milgram, researchers at UCL found that addressed letters left face-up on a dry day in poor areas of London were less likely to be picked up and posted (37 per cent) than letters left in wealthier areas (where 87 per cent were returned). Jo Holland and her team scattered 300 letters across 20 neighbourhoods, from East Sheen, the least deprived, to St. Dunstans, the most. Ethnic composition and population density were not related to the rates of return (PLoS One:

CBT for insomnia
Cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBTi) could soon be easier to access through the NHS. The ESRC says that a training programme used as part of a successful trial for older patients is now being used to train therapists nationwide. ‘[W]e have effectively overcome one of the chief barriers to giving CBTi for insomnia – the lack of skills in the workforce,’ said Chartered Psychologist Professor Kevin Morgan of Loughborough University.

Modern-Day Phineas Gage
An accident in Rio de Janeiro in August, in which a man’s brain was pierced by a six-foot-long metal rod, recalled the historic Phineas Gage incident of the 19th century. After falling from the fifth floor of a building, the rod entered the top of the man’s skull, his hard hat offering little protection. Unlike Gage, whose bar shot straight through his brain and landed metres behind him, the Brazilian man was left with the bar protruding from between his eyes. The surgeon who later removed the implement told Sky News: ‘The fact that the patient arrived here lucid and talking is incredible.’

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