The Cognitive Neuroscience of Deception

Truth about lies, the highest governing process

Ji Yun Shin

We have probably encountered many troubling scenarios in life where we have felt the urge to lie. Afterwards, we might be so afraid to disclose our lies that we experience enormous guilt. On the other hand, however, intentional lying can sometimes be beneficial in allowing us to attain our goals with less effort. In these particular cases, we are able to justify lying, and thus free ourselves from any discomfort that accompanies mistruth.

Generally, people exhibit great interest in learning various tricks to detect lies in social settings, as evidenced by the countless articles and books available that discuss the relationship between social cues and deception.. However, these resources do not fully describe the brain mechanisms that are involved in the fabrication of lies. In fact, studies have shown that the brain requires higher cognitive function when involved in deception than in truth.

In the U.S. and Indian markets, the commercial lie detector is being widely advertised without much scientific basis. While often cited in some legal cases, lie detector evidence is outright refused in others because it can be unreliable. It is hard to overcome the limitations of lie detection technology. While the efficacy of the lie detector is an often heated, controversial debate in the field of neuroscience, recent studies have been reporting very amusing results in which patterns of brain activity have been correlated with deception.

In the presence of new imaging technology, scientists have come to reconstruct the definition of deception. DePaulo et al. described deception as a deliberate attempt to mislead others through literal truths. A review done by Spence et al. also introduced perspectives borne from fMRI techniques that are being used to measure deception in the brain, demonstrating the importance of mistruth to human social interactions. According to this study, the delivery of untruthful information is considered to be harmless in many social circumstances, acting as a foundation for humans to achieve various purposes. The study also showed that participating in deception is ideal for a child at the age of 3 or 4, so that they may better learn self-control. In more detail, learning self-control at an early age is a prosperous endeavor; Spence et al. claim romantic relationships can be facilitated by deception. As a result, some social interaction disorders may be associated with a lack of this essential skill. Although Spence et al. addresses the danger of habitual lying, they emphasize that when used in moderation, deception is key to human interaction in a social context.

It has also been reported that the theory of mind is absolutely necessary for deliberate deception. In other words, one must have an understanding of the intentions of another in order to deceive others effectively. Consequently, it is assumed that if a person lies despite lacking a thorough theory of mind, it can be attributed to a cognitive impairment. The formulation of lies is viewed as an additional cognitive process that requires prefrontal executive systems. Deception, which involves withholding information, requires ‘inhibition’. According to Ford’s study in 1995, the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) is involved in the process. Patients with orbitofrontal lesions showed a tendency to refrain from lying, in that they could not successfully refrain from revealing truthful responses at inappropriate times. Also, in non-human primates with lesions in this brain area, deficits in conditional responses were observed. Another area that is also known to be involved in response inhibition (Spence et al.) is the ventral prefrontal cortex (VLPFC). Furthermore, increased activity in the PFC and anterior cingulate gyrus areas, which are mostly known to be responsible for executive functions such as decision making, was observed when participants were made to lie, suggesting that deception was incorporated in the executive process. Although in no way singularly conclusive, and having its own flaws in experimental design (For instance, only having, ‘yes’ or ‘no’, as possible responses), overall, this study revealed important information about the physiology of deception through modern imaging techniques.

Finally, recent improvements in the quality of fMRI studies have allowed us to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the nature of deception in human cognition. We suppress truthful information when we choose to deceive others for social benefit or otherwise, suggesting higher response inhibition. When constructing any social contextual responses, we must consider our intentions through the lens of our human cognition.

DePaulo, B. M., Lindsay, J. J., Malone, B. E., Muhlenbruck, L., Charlton, K., & Cooper, H.(2003). Cues to deception. Psychological bulletin, 129(1), 74.
Spence, S. A., Hunter, M. D., Farrow, T. F., Green, R. D., Leung, D. H., Hughes, C. J., &Ganesan, V. (2004). A cognitive neurobiological account of deception: evidence fromfunctional neuroimaging. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci, 359(1451), 1755-1762.
Ford, C. V., & Price, J. S. (1996). Lies!, lies!!, lies!!!: The psychology of deceit (p. 118).Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Press.
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