How Lying Affects Your Brain

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Contrary to the warnings of Disney productions, when you tell a lie your nose will not grow. However, a study by researchers at University College London and Duke University shows that lying does affect you physically and makes it easier for you to lie in the future.

This may seem straightforward to some people. If someone lies and gets away with it, they may be emboldened to lie again. Even the authors of the study point out that, anecdotally, digressions from a moral code such as telling the truth are often described as a series of small breaches that grow over time.

Their research supports this anecdotal belief, demonstrating that small lies can lead to a gradual “escalation of self-serving dishonesty.” The fascinating part of this study is that there is a neural mechanism that supports increasingly dishonest behavior. In other words, lying trains your brain to lie.

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure the signal reduction to the amygdala, a part of the brain that is sensitive to dishonest behavior. It usually produces a negative feeling that mitigates our desire to lie. If we push through that feeling and lie anyway, the negative response to lying is weakened and can eventually fade. As the amygdala becomes less sensitive to dishonest behavior, it is easier for us to accept the next dishonest behavior, larger indiscretions and lies.

The authors prefaced the publication of their work in Nature Neuroscience by stating that “Dishonesty is an integral part of our social world, influencing domains ranging from finance and politics to personal relationships.” I could not help but think of Senator Al Franken’s best-selling book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right and the current political environment in the United States. Senator Franken’s tongue-in-cheek satire was a response to the first term of the George W. Bush presidency and the right-wing media that supported it.

The horrors of 9/11 excepted, Bush’s eight years seem like a gentler and arguably, more honest time in American politics than what we are now experiencing. Based on the findings of the study, it should be highly alarming, but not surprising, that a man that has built his fortune, influence and power on decades of lying now decides much of America’s future. Trump’s amygdala sensitivity, much like his sensitivity to race, women, poverty, the environment and people with opposing opinions, appears to be permanently shut off.

Looking back on my own life, I remember being a young child of about 4 or 5 when my mom asked me a question. Instead of answering her honestly, I told her a lie.

She immediately knew I was lying and asked me why I lied to her. I didn’t have a good reason (is there a good answer to that question?), but I recall feeling so ashamed that I didn’t just tell the truth. My mom made me promise that I would never lie to her again, which I did.

And, I quickly learned that honesty really is the best policy. Today, I’m known among my friends and family members as the person who will always give an honest answer, regardless of what I’m asked. When they want an honest answer they tell me they seek me out. I’m grateful for my mom’s insistence that honesty is the best policy.

While I haven’t had an MRI assessment of the size or health of my amygdala, I’m sure it’s a whole lot healthier than it would have been. Thanks mom. I can think of more than a few politicians who could have used a mom like you.

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