College of LAS « Illinois


The Truth and Nothing but the Truth

Science fiction was a rich source of ideas about a lie detector.

Melissa Littlefield

If there is any one person who embodies the combination of frivolity and seriousness that surrounds the history of lie detection it would be William Marston. Melissa Littlefield, LAS assistant professor of English, and kinesiology and community health, says it was a 1920s ad for Gillette in Newsweek featuring Marston that sparked her interest in all the ways we try to separate truth from falsehood. In the advertisement, Marston—a Harvard graduate, the creator of Wonder Woman, and the inventor of the lie detection test that led to the modern polygraph—had hooked up a man to a lie detector to determine his true reaction to his shave.

“It was at that point that I thought, I have something here,” Littlefield recalls. “How is this functioning forward and backward in history and where did this technology come from?”

That epiphany led Littlefield to an ongoing literature in science study. Within the science fiction genre she has found that writers frequently predicted the mechanisms that would later be used in place of the good old-fashioned third degree. Although Wonder Woman’s “truth lasso” never came about, stories and novels as far back as 1909 featured a device resembling a lie detector, a device that did not come about until the 1920s.

“Part of what I try to do is use fiction to revalue fiction as not something that’s merely responding to science but as something that is generative of science,” Littlefield says. “Other scholars have looked at detective fiction as a precursor to lie detection and I think that’s valid. But I am interested in looking at where the technology actually shows up, where we’re physically seeing people use it. Some of the literature I use seems to be marginal. So there’s pulp stories. It’s not canonical stuff obviously.”

She notes that today’s security-laden, post-9/11 world of body scanners and radiation sniffers uses truth technology that was also foreseen by authors. James L. Halperin’s 1996 novel, The Truth Machine, conceived of a world where everyone would have to pass beneath a truth machine to receive jobs and licenses. The idea is that all dishonesty in life would disappear. Littlefield likens Halperin’s fictional creation to the new functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG) technologies. This is often called “brain fingerprinting,” Littlefield says.

“These new techniques purport to offer more direct access to the deceiving mind than does traditional polygraphy. Traditional lie detection relies on changes in the autonomic nervous system (blood pressure, heart rate, pulse, respiration) to determine emotional changes in an individual. Both fMRI and EEG track changes in the central nervous system. fMRI and EEG data sets seem more accurate because they come directly from the brain; they are not filtered through any auxiliary parts of the nervous system.”

All this serious Brave New World talk does not daunt Littlefield’s assertion that lie detection has a light side to it. After all, Marston also publicly, if not infamously, used something called a “sphygmomanometer” to test the “love impulses” of blondes, redheads, and brunettes, a scene wryly captured in a 1928 New Yorker piece by E.B. White, who called the act a “wily piece of press agentry.”

“It’s a technology with a history that’s just incredibly amusing and vibrant and dynamic,” Littlefield says. “I think a lot of technology functions that way and we just don’t know it. Here is a guy with a degree from Harvard in law and psychology and he’s writing comic books and performing these tests at the Embassy Theater on blondes, brunettes, and redheads.”

For the record, Marston found that brunettes respond more deeply to the love impulse. However, White did report that the blonde was holding Marston’s hand while she was tested.

By Stephen J. Lyons
Winter 2008