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Sean Spence

BMJ 2011; 342 doi: (Published 22 March 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d1865

This article has a correction. Please see:

  1. Steven R Hirsch
  1. s.hirsch{at}

Advanced the study of deception and free will

Sean Spence was the first person to use brain imaging techniques (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to identify the brain activity that provides a signature for deception and lying, thereby founding a new science and making the first major advance after the lie detector (Neuroreport 2001;12:2849-53, doi:10.1097/00001756-200109170-00019). Physiologically, telling the truth is a simpler quicker, and more immediate brain response; deception involves suppressing the truth, monitoring the recipient, and creating a lie. Spence found that lying activated the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain specifically activated in the generative activity of volition, but that left dorsolateral prefrontal hypofunction was common to all patients with hysteria when they moved an affected limb (Lancet 2000;355:1243-44, doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(00)02096-1).

Miscarriage of justice

Spence was the first person to apply neuroimaging techniques to real cases when volunteers lied or withheld the truth in relation to embarrassing personal events. He applied it to show a possible miscarriage of justice in a woman who volunteered for testing after serving a prison sentence for poisoning her child. She and her family insisted on her innocence. Testing involved her answering questions about the accusation when cued to either admit or deny her guilt. When her answers …

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