The End of the Lie

Two University of Pennsylvania scientists have invented machines that can look into your brain and know when you’re lying. The implications are extraordinary — and pretty scary

Downstairs, in the testing rooms, I met the other guinea pigs: Maliha Jumani, Fatima Aziz and Hina Batool, three young women from Pakistan.

I asked them how they felt about the Cognosensor and the deception study on which we were embarking. They just blinked. “This is a problem-solving study,” Jumani said. “Right?”

I wasn’t sure how to respond. Moments before, Chance had offered me a frank indication of how the Cognosensor might be used. “More work needs to be done, obviously a survey of other populations,” he said. “Different ethnic groups — is their ethical training such that deceit is a way of life? Someone with a Judeo-Christian background might feel differently about lying than other groups.”

The three women were all medical students back in Karachi, at Pakistan’s best university. They came to America hoping to study medicine for the summer at an Ivy League school and brighten their résumés. Their other friends, who had been accepted to study at places like Harvard and Yale, were unable to come to the States because their visas had been rejected for security reasons. “We had already decided we wouldn’t be able to come, and then we couldn’t believe it when our visas came through,” Aziz gushed. “We felt so lucky.”

The first phase of the experiment did indeed center on problem solving. Chance hypothesized that the “eureka” moment of solving a problem mimics the achievement of telling a lie. So we strapped on our Cognosensors in the tiny, pitch-black testing rooms, and watched white letters flash across a black screen. Our job was to unscramble the letters to form words, in Urdu for the ladies and English for me. It felt like twisting a Rubik’s Cube for eight hours a day, and it exhausted each of us. One day, after a severe bout of testing, I pulled the infrared headband off and felt a tingling in my skin. In a bathroom mirror, I found a series of red circles marching across my forehead — ­minor burns from the infrared light.

After weeks of the anagrams, Chance called us together and announced the true aim of the study: lie detection. The Pakistani ladies sat dumbstruck. Later, Jumani told me she felt tricked. “This isn’t medicine,” she said. “This is something military.”

During the anagram phase, I felt as though the Cognosensor had peeked over my shoulder while I tried to solve a puzzle. But during the lie detection, something else crept in, right away. The first question flashed: Is this card a spade?

Chance had instructed me to lie at some point in the day, whenever I wanted. I decided to start right away. So I lied: Yes, it is a spade.The laptop recorded my brain’s activity, tracking the lie as it formed.

Even during that most rudimentary lie, a low-level panic set in, like a slow-motion suffocation. Not because I really cared about the lie, but because the Cognosensor apprehended it. Of course calculators multiply and divide faster than I can, and a mobile phone can broadcast my voice much farther than I can shout; but for the first time in my life, technology knew better. The harder I concentrated, the tighter its grip became. After a while, I learned it felt better to let my brain go idle, relax, and let the lies fly without thought. The Cognosensor had, in a sense, trained me.

Later, when the Pakistani ladies and I compared graphs printed out by the Cognosensor — showing strain in the brain — the charts revealed that lying about card suits had registered a tiny signal; it was a lie so trivial, it could hardly be called deceit. How might the squeezing, suffocating feeling increase, then, when attempting lies that really matter?