University Research – Brainwave activity that reveals knowledge of crime

Source: University of Canterbury

An innovative research project that detects brain activity revealing individuals’ knowledge of criminal behaviour is delivering positive results for a University of Canterbury (UC) led research team.

The project team, led by UC Director of Clinical Legal Studies Professor Robin Palmer, has been working for the past three years to attempt to validate Forensic Brainwave Analysis (FBA) technology. This technology uses an EEG (electroencephalogram) to detect brainwaves that indicate whether or not a person has specific knowledge contained in their brain. The knowledge may suggest that the tested person was involved in criminal behaviour.

“Our initial expectations of the accuracy and reliability of the technology have been confirmed, and we are confident about positively proceeding to the next stage of the project,” Professor Palmer says.

FBA works to uncover the knowledge a person has by measuring certain brainwave responses during testing.

The testing technique detects and interprets the behaviour of the electrical brainwave known as P300. The P300 brainwave is produced as soon as the brain detects information that is of significant interest, for example, in a criminal investigation where there is unique information and detail only the offender or someone heavily compromised would know.

The project, funded by the New Zealand Law Foundation, involved two extensive experiments that involved 30 student volunteers and 15 sentenced prisoners who were tested on scenarios that took place on UC’s campus.

This FBA technology (also known as ‘brain-fingerprinting’), was pioneered by Dr Lawrence Farwell of the United States, and the aim of the three-year project was to independently confirm his reported results. Dr Farwell travelled to New Zealand a number of times to have discussions, implement experiments and train testers on the correct use of his system. However, the final sequence of experiments were done independently of Dr Farwell, while applying his prescribed testing protocols.

Professor Palmer hopes the technology could be applied to criminal proceedings especially pre-trial investigations as a way of eliminating people as possible suspects.

“The proposed next stage of the project is to apply the technology to criminal cases, and to compare the Farwell FBA system to rival FBA systems currently in use such as the Rosenfeld Concealed Information Test and the Brain Electrical Oscillation Signature system.” 

In 2020, with support from the New Zealand Police, the project team hopes to implement a pilot programme and test actual suspects.

The research team is made up of UC’s Professor Robin Palmer, Professor Richard Jones, Associate Professor Debra Wilson, Dr Ewald Neumann and research assistants Alex Pallett, George Mander, Sarah Makarious and Usman Afzali, along with colleagues Associate Professor Colin Gavaghan and Dr Jeanne Snelling from Otago University; Professor Kris Gledhill from Auckland University of Technology; and Professor Chris Gallavin from Massey University.