We present some educated guesses for the emergence of lying, according to the overall nature of the brain and of thermodynamics.

Neuroscientists Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt published: “Your Brain Lies to You”. (New York Times, June 27, 2008). Lying behavior has been verified and quantified in the laboratory. There are different mechanisms: source amnesia (it can lead to outright lying: a famous Hungarian proverb says that one should not complain about having one’s hat stolen, because the only thing people may remember about you is the theft of a hat). Another way the brain can lie is by sheer repetition (repeating “whatever” leads to believe in that “whatever”, whatever it is). Another well tested lie is the ready acceptance of new data compatible with what we already believe, while fiercely rejecting it, if it is not compatible with prejudice.

The authors point out that memories are fist stored short term in a special organ, the hippocampus (which is known to grow if short term memory is solicited too much, as in candidates trying to gather “The Knowledge” when presenting the exam for taxicab driver in London). Later the memories are increasingly transferred to the cortex, but each time they are read, they are used and partly rebuilt. So memories are not stable to start with.

Why does the brain lie? Well, first, it has no alternative. The brain tries to build complicated little networks inside itself to model what it perceives to be the behavior of the little black boxes of reality. It takes years to make neurological circuitry capable of as simple a behavior as walking. For more complicated, less important situations, there is no (evolutionary) reason perfection should be achieved (considering how long drawn and costly it is). Still, even in cases like that, some answer needs to be available, even if it is completely wrong, so that the curiosity instinct can move to somewhere else more important (say on the other side of the hill). Socrates was aware of this tendency of fabricating fake knowledge, and made a big deal of it (he insisted that he knew that he knew nothing  – that may have been true in his case, but it’s another story).

Secondly, the brain tries to maximize truthiness while minimizing energy. The brain is an energy guzzler (20% of energy at rest). So economy is paramount, and thus a simpler explanation is best, even if completely wrong (as long as survival is not as stake). If survival is not in question, the best answer is one that serves convenience, or comfort. Always with the minimum of neurological processing. That’s why “source amnesia” occurs: why to remember what has little value looking forward?

Now, of course, a particularly expensive (in energy currency) part of brain activity is learning. it requires heavy duty brain construction (say modifying the geometry of synapses by erecting contact points, or by increased glial activity, or by extending new dendrites or creating new neurons). So, to save energy, the brain should avoid learning as much as possible, hence use preexisting logical structures as much as possible. To do this, the brain is equipped with strong blocking instincts (“denial”) against any paradigms destroying information. (A preferred trick to do this is to come up with a neat small “anti-idea”, or “anti-emotion”, or “anti-behavior” which demolishes at the outset any incoming information before it can really land and explode the preexisting paradigm.)

Inside a brain, indeed, any paradigm is a giant, very elaborate neurological and neuroglial structure. To protect it saves energy (and response capability, since it was established precisely because it could answer some situations or questions).

A third reason for the brain to lie is that human beings are highly social: they are made to live in groups, so groupthink and groupfeel are preferred, to make fewer waves. Fascism is the surrender of one’s mind to that of the leader of the group. It’s a very strong instinct, because it insured the survival of the species. Basically creative thinking should be reserved to emergency situations, far from the group (that’s why philosophers and prophets go to the desert). Groupthink does not have to be true, just good for the group.

Fourth, repetition leads to obsession. Words are neurological hyperlinks between thoughts, emotions, and even plain motions. By repeating them, one activates repeatedly all the circuitry related to them, thus simple insistence (by the “Hebbian” mechanism of synaptic built up described above) builds, de facto, a new paradigm (that’s why large systems of thought such as religions have ceremonials with mantras). It’s like digging a grand canyon with a great river. 

Fifth, it has been found that conscious decisions are prepared up to ten seconds before the sense of free will is perceived. Experimenters watching brain scans can predict well in advance what people are going to do, even people have decided to do something (or so they think). So even free will is a lie. There are demons in the machine, and they think about it all well before they have taken built the architecture they are going to use for us. See the Wall Street Journal, “Get Out Of Your Own Way“, June 27 for a good synopsis. In other words, conscious thought is like an illusion of a general heading legions of ghosts he did not know existed. How could it tell the truth?

The main way we advance civilization, even before finding new energy sources, is by finding new ideas, and the deepest ones come from new psychoanalysis. Even the hardest science is all about psychoanalysis: Relativity Theory reconsidered what space and time was; it was found out that the old assumptions on space and time rested on naïve beliefs and hurried observations. Poincare’, the great mathematician, in a little philosophical book that influenced Einstein mightily, pointed out a sharper criterion about what it meant, “to know” (a criterion that had escaped Socrates entirely). That psychoanalytic, epistemological criterion put the speed of light front and center as the foundation on which to build our ideas about space and time.

Now that we know why we lie, we can avoid lying to those we love, like ourselves. That will make us more powerful (a weighty argument as energy gets ever more dear…)

The advancement of neuroscience allows our civilization to start building a more refined version of the THEORY OF THEORIES. What the human brain had to do all along, with much more modest capabilities of reflection.

Patrice Ayme,


References: Op-Ed, NYT, June 27, Your Brain Lies To You

WSJ, June 27 2008, Get Out Of Your Own Way

4 Responses to “WHY YOUR BRAIN LIES TO YOU.”

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