Columns / Discourse / January 21, 2009

Neurocolumn: Catch’er in the lie

As this is Knox College, I know I’m not alone in being a National Geographic loyalist. As I was reading back issues last week to stave off the winter blahs, I ran across a most interesting article in the September 2008 issue. I must have missed it before; it was tucked away in the corner of the page, where tentative new findings are always listed like the news ticker of intelligentsia (or, if you prefer, the personal ads of sexy statistical academia). The title of the report grabbed me immediately, and read something like this:

Born to Lie?

Compared with generally honest people, chronic liars, cheaters, and malingerers average 22 percent more white matter in the prefrontal cortex of their brains and 14.2 percent less gray matter, or neurons, a recent study by the University of Southern California found. White matter, the brain’s networking material, connects neurons much the way telephone wire connects phones; it also ties the prefrontal cortex to the body’s limbic system, which controls emotion. That’s why pathological liars can tell such whoppers without showing any nervousness. ‘It could well be that some people are born with a genetic predisposition to lie,’ says Adrian Raine, co-author of the study.

Guys, they studied me while I slept.

It didn’t start as anything malicious. It was actually quite a surprise to me, discovering that I could churn out a string of fabrications with all the sophistication of an 18th century loom. I remember an incident in my freshman year of high school, when my inner deviant began to wriggle in the pit of my stomach.

“Marnie, où sont vos devoirs?” my French teacher, a 4’9” Italian woman, cooed one October afternoon. We had been assigned a research project on the Ivory Coast and I had spaced, embarrassed that out of a class of 30 I had been the only one to do so.

I went up after class with the explanation, so as to circumvent the Only-French-spoken-during-French-class rule. The exchange was thus:

“Madame, I’m sorry I don’t have my research printed out today.” (Note the use of verbiage: I didn’t say I hadn’t done it, I said it wasn’t printed.)

“Yes, I’m a bit surprised at you. Why don’t you have your work?” The tiny woman’s neck craned up at my relatively substantial frame.

“Well, we’re in the process of getting a new computer hooked up at my house, and we lost some files in the transfer.” At this point I was unaware of my words, too busy mentally patting myself on the back. A new computer? That detail was completely inorganic; we hadn’t replaced our desktop in about seven years. I continued, “And so just last night we were able to recover my Ivory Coast document, but couldn’t print it out because…”

Roadblock! Why couldn’t I print it? I assume we installed a new fake printer to go with our fantasy word processor; what would have been the problem?

“See, it was complicated, because the installation….”

Assess the situation: I could have emailed it to myself at school and printed it out there. I could have saved it to a floppy disk or a CD. I could have – no no, wait, I had it.

“It was only recovered as a keystroke file. I’m sure you wouldn’t want to take the time to read that!”

Miniscule Madame Spiering gave me a smile, noting how I had, in my story, considered her well-being and had subsequently been merciful. I think that, with such an intricate thread and all the anxiety of Hermione Granger on my face, I was better off than half of my more studious classmates. Because I really cared. I went to painstaking limits to succeed – it wasn’t my fault I had failed. It was technology, that cruel mistress!

There you have it. National Geographic has, essentially, released a report about me. But like I said, it was never meant to be taken to such a degree. It is a practicality, this penchant for fibbing. In researching the matter further, I’ve found that lying is actually a great cardio routine for the brain: a recent Temple University study shows that “During lying, the brain scans showed 14 activated brain areas, compared with seven different activated brain areas when people are being honest.”

There’s a reason that politicians make it to the top. There’s a reason that soap operas span across decades with uniform success. It’s all about the lie: the glamour and, apparently, the intelligence of it.

And there’s a reason that I claimed I never received your text this afternoon. But if I told you what it was, I’d be weakening my mindpower, and I’m sure you’d agree that, really, no one is worth it.

Marnie Shure

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