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Thunderbird professor finds brain scans don't detect lies but do show culture

Brain scanners don’t work as lie detectors. But new research from a Thunderbird professor and 15 co-authors shows that brain scans do reveal information about a person’s culture.

“Brain scans provide a scientific map of cultural preferences and style differences long understood by Thunderbirds,” said Karen S. Walch, Ph.D., a professor at Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Ariz. “These brain maps reveal differences in neural processes of perception, emotion and motivation across cultures.”

Walch, who teaches cross-cultural negotiation at Thunderbird’s Garvin Center for Culture and Languages, added her expertise to a yearlong research project commissioned by the National Academy of Science in Washington.

Her research team included 15 medical science academics who work in the area of brain imaging and cognitive neuroscience. Walch was the only social scientist on the team, which looked at national security and military implications of emerging brain research.

“Brain scanners have helped scientists realize that people’s brains are organized differently depending on their culture,” said research team leader Christopher “Kit” Green, Ph.D., a medical doctor and researcher at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit, Mich. “That means everybody does not make decisions the same way.”

One of the project’s goals was to find ways to read people’s minds to determine whether they are lying or telling the truth.

“Rarely does a day go by that there isn’t some newspaper article or magazine article that talks about being able to look into somebody’s brain with functional brain imaging in order to make conclusions about a person’s state of mind in terms of not only their emotionality, but in terms of whether they’re telling the truth or whether they’re telling a lie,” Green said.

One recent Associated Press article, for example, reports that the U.S. Army is paying scientists to study ways to read people’s thoughts in a $4 million project at the University of California at Irvine, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Maryland.

Walch said the Irvine project is another example of the kind of research that is now being funded on social neuroscience. For now, at least, her research team concluded that brain imagers do not work — at least not as lie detectors.

But that does not mean Walch’s research team came up empty. Green said Walch’s contributions regarding culture and its impact on brain development are significant.

“Dr. Walch has informed the neuroscience community that we have hidden biases in the West in terms of what we think are values, and these biases result in decisions of right and wrong,” Green said. “We also tend to make judgments of other cultures where decision-making processes are, in fact, quite different than our own.”

Despite these hidden biases that can be detected on brain maps, Walch said people with proper training and dedication can learn to work effectively across cultures.

“These preferences are not necessarily hardwired in the brain,” Walch said. “Neuroscience has revealed that the brain has amazing plasticity, or the ability to adapt.”

Nevertheless, global managers still have their work cut out for them.

“Learning new languages and attempts at cultural style switching can often be difficult on an emotional and social level,” Walch said, “even for global managers who know it is possible.”

Walch said this is why she and other Garvin Center faculty work with executives and graduate students to help them understand their own acculturation, cultural preferences and neural structures. “We can help them become successful global linguists, communicators and negotiators,” Walch said.

The new report she co-authored, “Emerging Cognitive Neuroscience and Related Technologies,” was published in August 2008 by the National Research Council.

The report concludes that further social science and behavioral research is required on what brain scanners can reveal about “states of emotion; motivation; psychopathology; language; imaging processing for measuring workload performance; the differences between Western and non-Western cultures; and the relationship between culture and brain development.”