Ever met a really, really good liar? The kind who can look you straight in the eye and say that four plus four is seven, with the utter conviction of a priest? It turns out the gift of the fib is actually due to neurological difference. There are, to put it simply, liar brains — and science is telling us increasing amounts about what it actually means, neurologically, to have a loose relationship with the truth.
I am a spectacularly good liar — for a good cause, of course. Surprise birthday presents, complimenting a friend's much-loved but ridiculous outfit, telling small children "not much further"? I'm your girl. Fibbing about missing a deadline, not so much. That might be about the structure of my brain. While I have a good memory (check for lying) and likely a lot of white matter (check two), I also seem to have a strong moral sense that, peskily, gets in the way. And yes, morals and decision-making do actually correlate to brain-bits.
Of course, lying isn't necessarily a bad thing. The idea of constructing fantastical unrealities is, after all, the basis of storytelling, one of the fundamental values of a lot of societies. And lying to ourselves about our abilities, attractiveness, or value may actually be a boost to the self-confidence. But examinations of a particularly aggressive kind of liar have led to new ideas about the lying brain and what it means. Let's take a look.
What Makes A Good Liar — And How You Can Detect One
A particularly good liar needs many things, but the primary ones are an excellent memory, a low degree of moral sense, and a high degree of empathy. (Yes, liars are often extremely empathetic beings.)
Don't be fooled by the old advice that liars don't look you in the eye. Experienced liars will have heard this one too, and will likely make a point of keeping eye contact with you. Instead, there are more subtle "tells," like stiff body movement. Micro-expressions, lasting less than a fifth of a second, can also show a person's guilt at their nefarious doings — and we're subconsciously very good at picking up on them. So if you think somebody's lying, you're likely right.
If you're actively looking for a lie, keep these four tips in mind: liars in the process of telling a fib don't talk about themselves as much, tend to be negative rather than positive, explain situations very simply, and use long and convoluted sentence structure.
However excellent they are at lying, however, the body may betray the brain. The premise of polygraphs and lie detector tests is that they can identify human anxiety while telling a lie, but interestingly, a new scientific lying test that may be more sophisticated than the polygraph doesn't use heart rate at all — it's based on the stomach. Even if you can control your heart rate and bodily reactions, your stomach's electrical pulses may betray you in an untruth. No matter how much prolific liars control their bodies, there is always something that will likely betray them.
Other Key Traits Of Good Liars
Another element of being a liar? Having a good "social center" in the mind. People who have Asperger's Syndrome, for instance, don't have a brain that processes empathy or social interaction in a "normal" way, and consequently are terrible liars, if they learn how to lie at all. Lying, after all, is fundamentally about other people and how we treat them. So exceptional liars aren't anti-social losers; on the contrary, they'll have a very good understanding of how other people feel and think.
A recent (and kind of hilarious) test about lying in children published in the Journal Of Experimental Child Psychology also found something interesting, but completely intuitive if you think about it: children who are good liars also have exceptional memories.
Scientists gave a bunch of six and seven-year-olds aptitude tests about their memory skill, then set them up for a lying test: leaving them alone with a card with some information on it, turned face-down, and then asking them if they'd snuck a peek. The good liars could lie, not only about whether they'd peeked, but about how they could possibly know what was on the card without peeking. (They apparently came up with some amazing stories.) And guess what — the brilliant fibbers also had excellent memories, particularly verbal memories.
This makes perfect sense. Even the simplest of fibs requires a significant memory, to keep track of who's been told what, when, and how. You're going to be ruffled if somebody mentions that funeral you supposedly "had" to attend, and you go completely blank. The fact that this shows up in children may indicate that there's a certain amount of nature dominating nurture here, but there's no definitive proof.
How The Brains Of Good Liars Are Different
Lying is one behavior that can be tracked in the brain. (One day dating websites may demand MRI scans alongside cute black-and-white selfies as a condition of entry.) A study published in New Scientist in 2005 revealed that pathological liars, those who lie easily and frequently, have a substantively different brain structure to non-liars — and that it shows what demands lying makes on the brain.
Pathological liars (who'd been identified by standard psychopathic tests) had their brain scans compared to both normal non-liars and people who had personality disorders, but no pathological lying in their make-up. The liars had 22-26 percent more white matter in their brains than the two other groups, and 14 percent less grey matter.
What does this tell us? White matter is what connects regions of the brain to one another, allowing information transmission — and good liars need to have a lot of it to connect the many dots of complicated lying. What does this person know? What have I told them before? Who would they likely talk to? Am I being consistent?
Meanwhile, grey matter is the actual neural mass of the brain — but it's also been linked to moral reasoning. Decreased amounts of grey matter indicate a willingness to break moral codes and deviate from normal ideas of right and wrong. So: good liars have a brain that's big on information and low on morals. Sounds about right.
But there are a few problems. One is that these aren't everyday liars; they're severely pathological individuals, who are actually pretty rare. Another is we're not sure whether lying brains are just like this from birth, or whether they grow into their gift. Are we born with good lying brains, or does our grey and white matter develop and react in ways that may make us better liars? After all, brains are exceptionally plastic. It's the classic nature/nurture problem, and the New Science study doesn't address it.