Deception. It’s something everyone remembers when it happens to him or her: a cheating boyfriend, a misleading ‘I love you” or a fake smile.

Deception is a pervasive and important part of the human condition. Julian Keenan from the Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory in the Department of Psychology at Montclair State University wrote in a scholarly article that deception is ‘the dark side of consciousness.”

Self-awareness is the first step to developing many complex social skills, but self-awareness may hold the key to skilled deception.

David Livingstone Smith was right to quote Mark Twain in his Scientific American Mind article titled ‘Natural Born Liars” (2005). Smith wrote, ‘We can find a clue from Mark Twain, who bequeathed to us an amazingly insightful explanation. “When a person cannot deceive himself,’ [Mark Twain] wrote, “the chances are against his being able to deceive other people.’

Self-deception is advantageous because it helps us lie to others more convincingly. Concealing the truth from ourselves conceals it from others.”

Amanda Johnson from the Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory at Montclair State University found that individual differences in peoples’ ability to deceive seemed to be based on subjects’ degree of self-awareness.

Subjects with more self-awareness were ‘more effective deceivers.” They also concluded that those subjects with more self-awareness may learn about others’ mental states more quickly, which might make it easier for them to deceive others.

There is increasing scientific evidence that supports Machiavelli’s conclusions in ‘The Prince.” He writes, ‘it is necessary to know well how to… be a great pretender… men are so simple and so obedient to present necessities that he who deceives will always find someone who will let himself be deceived.” While many religions and moral theories object strongly to this conclusion, brain chemistry can’t lie.

Neuroimaging studies over the past 20 years have shown that deception and deception detection are highly correlated with activity in the right hemisphere. Areas identified to be involved in deception have also been associated with self-awareness.

Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School, Giorgio Ganis, conducted a neuroimaging study evaluating which parts of the right hemisphere are involved in deception.

The study examined three males and seven females between ages 20 and 30. Subjects were asked to write in detail about one memorable work experience and one memorable vacation.

They were then asked to provide an alternative to those experiences and memorize the alternative scenarios. Ganis recorded subjects neural activity via BOLD fMRI while they told the true stories about those memorable experiences, while they told the alternative scenarios and while they were asked to lie spontaneously. Results confirmed that deception is localized in the right hemisphere. Both types of lies elicited more activity in the anterior prefrontal cortices (bilaterally), the parahippocampal gyrus (bilaterally), the right precuneus and the left cerebellum.

Results also showed a difference in neural activity between the rehearsed lies and the spontaneous ones. While both types of lies activated the previous areas, it appeared that well-rehearsed lies elicited more activity in the right anterior frontal cortices as compared to the spontaneous lies that elicited much more activity in the anterior cingulated and posterior visual cortex.

Neuroscientists have taken on an enormous task. This task involves the exploring of brain activity in order to perfect methods of deception detection.

While we haven’t perfected the science of deception detection, our methods have grown progressively more accurate.

Science seems to be catching up to our tricks. Perhaps as our methods of detecting deception improve, we will invent new methods. I most certainly do hope so.

The world is not any fun if it is entirely transparent, without any deception, at least from an evolutionary standpoint.

Goodman is a member of the class of 2010.



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