This Is Your Brain on Lies

New research cracks the neurological secrets of lying.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

Do you want to go, Matt, or do you want me to go?

MATT MARTINEZ: I'll go. I'll go. I'll go.

STEWART: Okay.

MARTINEZ: I have one of the most e-mailed stories at npr.org right now. It is from NPR's Radio Lab. It's produced by WNYC here in New York and by esteemed science correspondent Robert Krulwich and producer Jad Abumrad. And the sorry is all about liars.

ROBERT KRULWICH: There are people who lie, and lie, and lie.

JAD ABUMRAD: Right.

Ms. YALING YANG (Researcher, University of Southern California): Yeah.

ABUMRAD: Exactly.

Ms. YANG: They just can't help it. They feel this impulse that they cannot control.

ABUMRAD: Yeah. The lie just tumbles out before can stop.

KRULWICH: And that is, who?

ABUMRAD: Oh, that's Yaling Yang. She's a researcher in the University of Southern California.

Ms. YANG: In the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience.

ABUMRAD: Now, Robert, here's what Yaling did. She gathered together a group of subject. Put then through a series of interviews, series of test, and was able to identify a subset that seemed to lie more often, more persistently than average.

KRULWICH: Okay.

ABUMRAD: And so she wondered, is it just their personalities, their upbringing, or might there be something in their heads, in their brains, that could explain this lying?

Ms. YANG: basically, what took people in the - in my scanner and then we scan their brains.

ABUMRAD: She scanned all her subjects, the liars and the non-liars - no one knew which group their in. And she was looking at a particular part of their brain called…

Ms. YANG: The prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that passes the information…

ABUMRAD: This is where the real thinking happens.

Ms. YANG: …making decisions and moral judgment for example.

ABUMRAD: Now if you zoom in to that place just behind your forehead, you will see - are two kinds of brain tissue. You've got gray matter and then you've white matter.

KRULWICH: I've heard of gray matter.

ABUMRAD: Yes. Well, we think of the brain as being gray but actually its two things, its gray and white. The gray stuff, kind of think of it as like the computer processor part.

KRULWICH: Yeah.

ABUMRAD: It's these little clumps of neurons that process information. Like computer chips. That's the gray, where as the white…

Ms. YANG: The white matter is like the connections between all these computer.

ABUMRAD: The white matter in other words is what moves the thoughts around.

KRULWICH: Gray is where the thinking happens and then white is when you move the thought from here to there.

ABUMRAD: Exactly.

Ms. YANG: Yes. They transfer information from one end to the other.

ABUMRAD: Okay. So you've got your gray, you've got your white, what Yaling though she would see when she looked into the brains of people who lie a lot…

Ms. YANG: I thought we would see a reduction.

ABUMRAD: Just piece of it not there.

Ms. YANG: Yeah. They're missing something.

ABUMRAD: Specifically, she though she would find less gray stuff. Less of the thinking stuff.

KRULWICH: Why would it - why would - why?

ABUMRAD: Because that's what she seen in other mental disorders that are kind of like this. And if you think about it in a really simplistic level, the gray is where you think the thoughts and it's also among other where you crunch your moral calculations. And liars, she figured, have trouble in this department. Assumes maybe they have less gray. That was her notion.

KRULWICH: Okay.

ABUMRAD: But, when she got the pictures back, what she saw was…

Ms. YANG: Such a great increase.

ABUMRAD: More - and not the gray.

Ms. YANG: More white matter.

ABUMRAD: More white stuff. A lot more.

Ms. YANG: Twenty-five percent. It's like a quarter.

ABUMRAD: So they have 25 percent more connections in their head than non-liars?

Ms. YANG: Yes.

ABUMRAD: Before we get to what that means, what were you thinking when you saw this?

Ms. YANG: I thought this was something.

ABUMRAD: Something.

Ms. YANG: Something.

ABUMRAD: Something. Here's her idea so far, ready?

KRULWICH: Yes.

ABUMRAD: She thinks that these extra connections play a crucial role in a kind of in the moment story telling. That's essentially what lying is, coming up with a story on the fly. Let me give you an example, okay?

KRULWICH: Mm-hmm.

ABUMRAD: You're leaving work. You're walking down the hall, you don't yield. And an annoying but nice co-worker corners you.

KRULWICH: Oh, hey, Sally(ph).

ABUMRAD: Corners you in the elevator.

Unidentified Woman: (As Sally) Hey.

ABUMRAD: Asks you out.

KRULWICH: You know, I've been meaning to ask, you maybe want to go out with me on Friday?

(Soundbite of train)

ABUMRAD: There you are. Questions dangling in the air.

Unidentified Man: You maybe want to go out with me on Friday?

ABUMRAD: For most of us, right in that moment inside our head in our brains, we're thinking…

Unidentified Woman: (As Sally) Crap. Oh, shoot.

ABUMRAD: Say you're busy. Say you're busy. Say you're busy.

SALLY: (unintelligible) but with what? What?

ABUMRAD: What are you busy with? Think of something. Think, think.

SALLY: This thing.

ABUMRAD: You're just reeking out into the voyage, trying to form a connection with some ideas that can help you come up with some excuse.

SALLY: I could say…

ABUMRAD: You know, I could say - ah, what? What? What?

SALLY: Think of anything.

ABUMRAD: And really, what you need to do at this moment is just take a bunch of desperate thought on different sides of your brain, like, me tonight. Teeth, dentist, and connect them all together.

Unidentified Woman: (As Sally) I'm having some late night dental work.

ABUMRAD: Like that.

KRULWICH: Oh, okay.

ABUMRAD: We can all do it given enough time. But for these people who lie a lot, she thinks that because they have so many more of these connections to begin with, they get there faster.

Unidentified Woman: (As Sally) My mom is visiting that night. I'm meeting a friend for sushi. I am performing in a circus. Friday night book club. Ice hockey practice. Yoga. I have to polish my silver. I've got chemo.

Ms. YANG: They've got more connections…

Unidentified Woman: (As Sally) Sorry, bee keeping.

Ms. YANG: …the faster the speed of the processing can jump from one idea to another and you can come up with more random stories.

ABUMRAD: She thinks that in the brains than most of us. We have trouble making those connections. We have - would you have trouble if I said to you like, come on, come and go out with me on Friday night. Would you not be able to come up with a wowzer(ph)?

KRULWICH: I would say, yeah. They - I have to count straws. See, Thursday night is straw counting, we always - we have about 316 straws so far. And I'm only doing one with the little red circles on them. So that Thursday night. Sorry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: I don't where everything comes. It just happens. I just…

ABUMRAD: There you go. See? You've got extra white matter perhaps.

KRULWICH: So she's saying this is a cause of lying of an effect of lying?

ABUMRAD: Well, she's not sure. And this is a big debate.

KRULWICH: Hmm.

ABUMRAD: What she can say is that children, as they grow…

Ms. YANG: Yeah, from age two to age 10, there's a big jump in their white matter.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. YANG: And that's actually the same age that they develop the skill to lie.

(Soundbite of baby)

ABUMRAD: Yaling has a good reason to be thinking about how brains develop because she's a new mom.

Is this your first kid?

Ms. YANG: Yes. It's my first one.

ABUMRAD: Bo or girl?

Ms. YANG: A girl.

ABUMRAD: Doesn't it make you wonder a little bit about what's gong on inside her head?

Ms. YANG: oh, yes. I wonder about that all the time. It's still too early to scan her brain but eventually I will do it.

ABUMRAD: Are you serious?

Ms. YANG: Yes.

ABUMRAD: This is a moral to this. Never, if you're a little baby, have a social psychiatrist as a mother.

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