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Liars' Brains Wired Differently


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A USC study has found the first proof of structural brain abnormalities in people who habitually lie, cheat and manipulate others.

 

lefthttp://hypography.com/gallery/files/9/9/8/brain_554058_thumb.jpg[/img]While previous research has shown that there is heightened activity in the prefrontal cortex - the area of the brain that enables most people to feel remorse or learn moral behavior - when normal people lie, this is the first study to provide evidence of structural differences in that area among pathological liars.

 

The research - led by Yaling Yang and Adrian Raine, both of the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences - is published in the October issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry.

 

The subjects were taken from a sample of 108 volunteers pulled from Los Angeles’ temporary employment pool. A series of psychological tests and interviews placed 12 in the category of people who had a history of repeated lying (11 men, one woman); 16 who exhibited signs of antisocial personality disorder but not pathological lying (15 men, one woman); and 21 who were normal controls (15 men, six women).

 

"We looked for things like inconsistencies in their stories about occupation, education, crimes and family background," said Raine, a psychology professor at USC and co-author of the study.

 

"Pathological liars can’t always tell truth from falsehood and contradict themselves in an interview. They are manipulative and they admit they prey on people. They are very brazen in terms of their manner, but very cool when talking about this."

 

Aside from having histories of conning others or using aliases, the habitual liars also admitted to malingering, or telling falsehoods to obtain sickness benefits, Raine said.

 

After they were categorized, the researchers used Magnetic Resonance Imaging to explore structural brain differences between the groups. The liars had significantly more "white matter" and slightly less "gray matter" than those they were measured against, Raine said.

 

Specifically, liars had a 25.7 percent increase in prefrontal white matter compared to the antisocial controls and a 22 percent increase compared to the normal controls. Liars had a 14.2 percent decrease in prefrontal gray matter compared to normal controls.

 

More white matter - the wiring in the brain - may provide liars with the tools necessary to master the complex art of deceit, Raine said.

 

"Lying takes a lot of effort," he said.

 

"It’s almost mind reading. You have to be able to understand the mindset of the other person. You also have to suppress your emotions or regulate them because you don’t want to appear nervous. There’s quite a lot to do there. You’ve got to suppress the truth.

 

"Our argument is that the more networking there is in the prefrontal cortex, the more the person has an upper hand in lying. Their verbal skills are higher. They’ve almost got a natural advantage."

 

But in normal people, it’s the gray matter - or the brain cells connected by the white matter - that helps keep the impulse to lie in check.

 

Pathological liars have a surplus of white matter, the study found, and a deficit of gray matter. That means they have more tools to lie coupled with fewer moral restraints than normal people, Raine said.

 

"They’ve got the equipment to lie, and they don’t have the disinhibition that the rest of us have in telling the big whoppers," he said.

 

"When people make moral decisions, they are relying on the prefrontal cortex. When people ask normal people to make moral decisions, we see activation in the front of the brain," he explained. "If these liars have a 14 percent reduction in gray matter, that means that they are less likely to care about moral issues or are less likely to be able to process moral issues. Having more gray matter would keep a check on these activities."

 

The researchers stopped short of asserting that these structural differences account for all lying.

 

"This is one of the components," Raine said.

 

"The findings need to be replicated and extended to other parts of the brain. What are the other neurobiological processes?

 

"We haven’t had studies like this. It’s exciting to us because it’s a beginning study, but we need a lot more to flesh out this discovery."

 

Yang, the study’s lead author, said the findings eventually could be used in making clinical diagnoses and may have applications in the criminal justice system and the business world.

 

"If [the findings] can be replicated and extended, they may have long-term implications in a number of areas," said Yang, a doctoral student in the USC department of psychology’s brain and cognitive science program.

 

"For example, in the legal system they could potentially be used to help police work out which suspects are lying. In terms of clinical practice, they could help clinicians diagnose who is malingering - making up disability for financial gain.

 

"And also in business, they could assist in pre-employment screening, working out which individuals may not be suitable for hiring.

 

"But, right now, I have to emphasize that there are no direct practical applications," she said.

 

In their journal article, the authors mention that separate studies of autistic children - who typically have trouble lying - have showed the converse pattern of gray matter/white matter ratios.

 

"The facts that autistic children have difficulty lying and also show reduced prefrontal white matter constitutes the opposite but complementary pattern of the results compared to adults with increased prefrontal white matter who find it easy to lie," the researchers wrote.

 

"Although autism is a complex condition and cannot be taken as a model for lying, these results ... converge with current findings on adult liars in suggesting that the prefrontal cortex is centrally involved in the capacity to lie."

 

The other researchers were Susan Bihrle and Lori LaCasse, also of the USC College’s psychology department, Patrick Colletti of the Keck School of Medicine of USC’s department of radiology and Todd Lencz of Hillside Hospital’s department of research.

 

Source: University of Southern California

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Fascinating! I wonder what the legal implications would be - could it possibly used against a person in court to show that he/she is biologically inclined to lying? Or, alternatively, could a person use it in his/her defence?
The implications are that the so-called wiring is not something under one's control. It would be nice to know if there is a treatment program for habitual liars. Of course, if our underlying belief is that 'being' a liar is outside of our control, then no program would be created. However, if one believes as I do that this behavior is a learned and self generated 'ability', then it would be nice to know that we took it as seriously as being an alcoholic. Personally, I think it is a very serious issue because it has many forms and permeates human society. I think lying holds humanity down.

Studies such as the one referred to in the article could be used to take a 'print' of before and after for programs created to provide a metric for the success of treatment programs. Although it would probably serve as just another hurdle for a 'good' liar to clear.

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The only problem with using this for the criminal justice system is that if a liar is telling the truth, their history of lying will condemn them as a liar even if they tell the truth. If is interesting we are born with a fixed number of brain cells; more gray matter means more brain cells. More white matter means more branching per brain cell. Both combinations can form the same number of synapses.

 

Maybe fewer brain cells makes it hard to be rational thereby requiring the complexity of lying to generate more branches to get same number of synapses. This helps create social par.

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nice post, Hyrdo. And, you're right - in more ways than you realize. A person's history of lying can condemn them before they even get the chance to tell the truth when it really matters. The only option a person might have would be to volunteer for a polygraph... however, when you are so nervous abou the results of a polygraph and thinking about the past lying episodes, you are more likely to give inconclusive results, or even "false" results, resulting from miniscule physiological nervous reactions. One example of this I can tell you from my own experience... not with lying, but being nervous about the outcome. I had to take my polygraph and testify that I had only smoked marijuana one time in my life - when I was 13 years old. However, my own parents thought I had been on drugs for a long time (due to my relationships/friends) and I even found a journal entry my mom had written (yes, I was snooping!) where she said she thought I was doing all kinds of bad things. So, on this question, due to being so anxious and upset about the topic I produced a false positive several times before asking it in a few different manners produced the right results. Someone with a history of lying might not be given that opportunity.

 

What a great article, Clay! Really interesting topic.

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Identifying liars by their brain structure can only lead to trouble if it becomes socially acceptable. I'm sure that it wouldn't take too long for it to lead to sittuations like the real world ex. below.

 

It was (and still is) believed that abused children grow up to be the same type of monsters their abusers were ( I've even heard it hypothisised that being an abuser or molester is a genetic brain disorder in various circles) . As abused children I and my siblings were branded and labled as throw-aways because of these beliefs by teachers, foster parents, our adoptive parents, our friends' parents, and numerous other persons of authority. (why invest in someone that will just going to end up in prison anyway). My siblings and I made a conscious decission years ago that we would never be like our father. As of yet I've not harmed anyone nor have my siblings nor do we have any inclination too.

 

It would appear to me that science and society were off by 100% in our case and we paid the price for it.

 

My point is do we as a society really want to be judged and treated by how we were made rather than who we are? This is exactly where studies like this lead, imagine being denyed employment, or the right to speak on your own behalf at trial because your family is geneticly predisposed to lying!

 

Really long story short: People are who they choose to be, and it's time for science to stop giving them excuses for antisocial behavior!

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Our thought processing has a lot to do with how neutron's branch. If one copies behavior one will induce their neurons to branch similarly. Genetics plays a role but I believe that the genetic explanation is over extended when it comes to consciousness. Programming by the environment, nurturing or abuse by others, all effect one's inner attitude and how they perceived the world and program the brain.

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Really long story short: People are who they choose to be, and it's time for science to stop giving them excuses for antisocial behavior!

Cool handle. I'll bet your warped sense of humor got you through some bad experiences, eh? :hyper: I know about that stuff too and I totally agree with what you say.

Liars, the kind that have habituated that behavior, ALWAYS seem to easily blame others for the things they do. It isn't an accident that the criminal mentality seems to go hand in glove with lying.

The fundamental mistake is that they gave up ownership of their identity when they 'learned' that they weren't responsible for who they are. I wish we as a society would adopt a more active role in understanding the roots of lying and dealing with it before it becomes habituated. Perhaps that would be the most significant thing we could do with respect to crime.

We need to show what lying really is, why it's really wrong and why happiness cannot be gained by lying. I apologize for going off-thread here but it is one of the most important subjects we could ever discuss. Lying often invades such things as science too.

I also think that when government officials lie to us, the penalties for discovery should be much, much higher than simple fraud. Much higher. The penalties should be commensurate with the results of the lies.

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I wonder, could the habitual trait hardwired in these people be brainwashed from them. To some extent I believe people born with normal brain structures can be taught to be unremorseful, habitual liars. Is the reverse possible as well?
Well, that's why we need to understand the roots of it. I think it's simply understanding the connection between values and life and why, if there isn't a good connection, things get mucked up. Brainwashing feels like treating the issue with a mantra, something we say over and over again until it becomes automated. We need to discover the underlying truth and then show how that is a value. Optimistically, I think it makes sense to consider it something that can be reversed.
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Can structural or mechanical properties of the brain be reversed? Can the ratio of grey matter to white matter be changed using strictly psychiatric therapy.

I think we're assuming that 'white matter' is the result of lying. It would be interesting to see if an author of fiction gets the same results. Are there occupations that would require that mode of mental operation? I wonder what kinds of people constituted the non-lying group.

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I think we're assuming that 'white matter' is the result of lying.

I'm not. I'm wondering if there is a biological cause for the extra white matter and does it contribute as a cause to lying, by inhibiting remorse for example, as opposed to being the result of lying. If there is a biological cause can it be altered psychiatrically?

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I'm not. I'm wondering if there is a biological cause for the extra white matter and does it contribute as a cause to lying, by inhibiting remorse for example, as opposed to being the result of lying. If there is a biological cause can it be altered psychiatrically?
Wow, that would be tough to find out. Excellent question though. We'd need to map the brains of children and see what we start with and see if it changes. But we're making some conclusions based upon the study followed in this thread. It's probably too early to actually conclude anything until others can duplicate the results and ensure that the methodology was non-biased.
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  • 11 months later...

I thought that this article was very interesting and in a way easy to read. It thouroughly stated the reasons behind the theory of the wiring pathological liar's brains. Also the experiment was described in great detail. There were many different quotes in this article which helped support the theory. It also related liar's brains are wired differently to the fact that autistic children have trouble lying due to a reduced amount of white matter in the frontal lobe of the brain, the opposite of adults with more white matter in the frontal lobe of the brain. In conclusion, I thought that this article was not only interesting to read, but helpful and informative. This article interested me because something that I really enjoy is learning about how the brain works, and how people "tick."

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Just because people prone to lying have more white and less grey matter doesn't mean that this physical difference is what causes the lying... It could just as easily be the other way around. People who learn (through their life experiences) to lie more often may develop more white and less grey matter to support it.

 

This kind of thing pisses me off because a person who often debates philosophy might also have more white matter for example, and the next thing you know I'm going to be screened out of jobs because of some scientist's poor reasoning ability.

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