Brain 'Fingerprinting': Latest Tool for Law Enforcement

Article excerpt

Brain fingerprinting is the latest in computer-based technology that allows investigators to identify or exonerate subjects based upon measuring brain-wave responses to crime related pictures or words presented on a computer screen.

According to Dr. Larry Farwell, the inventor of this technology, "Brain Fingerprinting is based on the principle that the brain is central to all human activities; it plans, executes and records information." Therefore, if a subject has information pertaining to a crime, this information is permanently recorded in the brain. With proper training and technology, the memories stored in the brain can be retrieved.

How Brain Fingerprinting Works

According to Farwell, to determine if a subject was present or has specific knowledge concerning a crime, words or pictures relevant (and irrelevant) to that crime are flashed on a computer screen. For scientific assurance, three types of stimuli are used during the process: Irrelevant (that which is immaterial to the case and person); Targets (that which the subject will recognize and respond); and Probes (those related specifically to the crime).

The subject is attached to a headband equipped with sensors that measure his/her electroencephalograms, or EEG, for short. The subject is instructed to press a particular button for target responses and another button for all other responses. Each stimulus appears for a fraction of a second. If the subject recognizes the pictures, words or phrases (target or probe), a MERMER (Memory and Encoding Related Multifacted Electroencephalographic Response) will occur.

Farwell said, "for a subject with knowledge of the investigated situation, the probes are noteworthy due to that knowledge, and therefore these probes will elicit a MERMER. For a subject lacking this knowledge, that is, information not stored in the brain, probes are indistinguishable from the irrelevant stimuli, thus will not elicit a MERMER."

In other words, when details of a crime known to the subject are present, a MERMER will be detected. A MERMER will not occur in an innocent subject or someone who has no knowledge of the crime. Farwell added that a computer then analyzes the brain response to these MERMERS (or lack of MERMERS) to scientifically determine if a subject has specific information related to the crime stored in his/her brain.

Law enforcement has other investigative tools at their disposal to determine if a subject was at a crime scene, such as fingerprint identification, DNA analysis and polygraph examinations. There is no doubt that fingerprint and DNA analysis are both reliable and valid in determining the guilt or innocence of subjects, but they are not always available. It has been estimated that DNA and/or fingerprints are only available in one percent of all crime scenes.

Farwell noted that "DNA fingerprinting can only be successfully applied when investigators collect and preserve the specific kind of evidence demanded by the technique." Additionally, "collecting and preserving fingerprints and biological samples involves significant costs in time, resources and money." With Brain Fingerprinting, the information stored in the brain is always present, similar to a video camera recording events.

Brain Fingerprinting is frequently mistakenly compared to the polygraph. The polygraph determines a person's level of deception by measuring galvanic skin response, respiration, heart rate and blood pressure. Farwell said "Brain Fingerprinting depends only on brain information processing, it does not depend on the emotional response of the subject."

Brain Fingerprinting does not directly seek the distinction between lies versus truth, it merely indicates whether a person has information specifically related to the crime in question. There is also the issue of deception. According to F.B.I. Physiologist and Special Agent Dr. Drew Richardson, "the polygraph can be beat with just 10 minutes of training, even by a 10-year-old. …