CQU psychologists educate law enforcement on ‘Brain fingerprinting’

Published:07 October 2020

An article by CQUniveristy psychologists Rebecca Wilcoxson, Dr Nathan Brooks, Dr Paul Duckett and Dr Matthew Browne was published in the Australian Police Journal on 'Brain fingerprinting'

The Australian Police Journal (APJ) has published an article written by CQUniversity psychology experts which outlined the issues of using the controversial lie detection technique ‘Brain Fingerprinting’ in criminal investigations.

The collaboration between forensic psychologist Dr Nathan Brooks, PhD student Rebecca Wilcoxson, community psychologist Dr Paul Duckett and psychology statistics expert Dr Matthew Browne, discussed the credibility of the forensic method which has been claimed as an ‘almost 100% accurate procedure for identifying whether a suspect knows details of a crime.’

Brain Fingerprinting uses electroencephalogram (EEG) recording to record brainwaves, focusing on an event-related waveform called the P300. Changes in these wave forms signify whether the suspect is familiar with the details of the crime.

While on face value, something may appear scientific, Dr Browne explained that without sufficient review, validation, and standards, information can mislead and misrepresent the scientific status of brain fingerprinting technology.

“In 2013 a review of Brain Fingerprinting was undertaken alongside the methods creator Dr Lawrence Farwell. In all four studies, the error rate was 0 per cent. Accuracy was 100 per cent. 100 per cent of determinations were correct. There were no false negatives and no false positives.

“While this may seem positive, this data can be used to market the method to law enforcers who are possibly not aware of the limitations,” he said.

Ms Wilcoxson agreed that the disconnect between legitimate forensic science research and commercial products such as Brain Fingerprinting may cause pseudoscience to emerge.

“Forensic researchers highlight the significant issues with their methods, while companies who are selling the same method claim their products are unequivocally empirically supported.”

“Other lie detection study findings have criticised Brain Fingerprinting for lacking ecological validity, meaning the method is not as reliable in real-life settings,” she said

“A major, often unacknowledged, problem is the suspect’s possible lack of memory for details due to the passage of time since the crime - the method relies on a perpetrator to know information about the crime that would only be known by one who was present.”

The researchers concluded that emerging techniques in forensic science are promising and important for the discipline, however, Dr Brooks warned these techniques must be regulated and cautiously applied if utilised in Australian police investigations or by lawyers and judges.

“Our article in the APJ is intended to educate law enforcement and promote further research and investigation into these approaches or techniques before they are considered science,” he explained.

“There must be established reliability, peer review, general acceptance, clear standards, identifiable error rates, and applicability to the issues or matter at hand.”