What’s in a Lie?
Author: Becca Edwards
Have you ever told a lie? Be honest. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t. Maybe it was a benign one. Something like, “No, you don’t look bad in that!” or “This is the best fruitcake ever!” (because no one in their right mind likes fruit cake). Maybe it was something a little bit more dishonest but still felt obligatory like, “Jeez, I’m sorry I’m late, boss. There was a traffic accident,” when in actuality you hit the snooze button one too many times. And then maybe it was something—well flat out deceptive—like, “I would never cheat on you!” or “I thought I paid you!”
Famous quotes like the bible’s “Thou shalt not lie” and Friedrich Nietzsche’s “The lie is a condition of life” open up the spectrum of untruth possibility in terms of how we view the telling of the lie. On one morally formidable hand, lying is an act against God and humanity. On the other more humanistic and arguably realistic hand, lying is just what people do—whether the intention is benevolent, malevolent or somewhere in between.
The definition of the verb “to lie”—“to speak falsely or utter untruth knowingly”—seems to excuse those times when we inadvertently fib via exaggeration or the fine art of storytelling. Or at least I hope that’s the case, given the fact that my husband often jokes, “Becca never lets the truth get in the way of a good story.” (Note: Except when it comes to journalism—of course.) In my defense, my fish tales usually happen after a few glasses of wine—when I can also speak Spanish and French fluently, am suddenly a good dancer and know all the answers to life’s questions. But for those times when we purposefully go morally corrupt and steal from the bag of lies, know that the matter is not black and white. Varying shades of deceit are rendered by the liar and the type of lie told.
According to CompulsiveLyingDisorder.com (which I’m guessing they’re telling the truth), there are five different types of liars. Sociopathic liars lie continuously in an attempt to get their own way without showing care or concern for others. Compulsive liars continually lie from sheer habit. Lying tends to be their normal manner of responding to any questions from others.” Occasional liars seldom lie, and when they do, they are so blown away by what they said that their guilt overcomes them. Careless liars “will go about their normal lives and lie every way they can. They are not concerned about trying to hide their lies or making sure they make sense… and everyone knows that the person isn’t being honest. White liars don’t usually “think of themselves as true liars and justify their white lies as harmless, or even beneficial, in the long term.
Now, the three different types of lies. A lie of commission communicates a false fact. A lie of omission conveniently leaves out the truth. A lie of influence attempts to make the teller seem better or less suspicious. Let’s use my youngest child when she brushes her teeth as an example for each type. If she said, “My teeth are all clean, Mommy,” after not even entering the bathroom, that would be a lie of commission. If she said, “Yes mommy, I brushed my teeth like you asked,” when she hit her sister to get to the toothpaste first, that would be a lie of omission. If she said, “I am the best brusher in the family,” that would be a life of influence. (And if she could just brush her damn teeth without drama, then I could honestly enjoy our bedtime routine, but I digress.)
When we lie, MRI imaging actually detects it in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain and a lie detector—which notable psychologist and polygraph historian Geoffrey C. Bunn, Ph.D.
described as “an entertainment device”—detects it with heart rate, skin conductivity and rate or respiration. The point is, we apparently experience a physiological response when we lie. But are we truly aware of what happens when we lie?—both to ourselves and to others? What does it do mentally, physically and even spiritually?
First, let’s look at the physical effect of artifice. “The amygdala, which is the emotional center of the brain and controls the “fight or flight or freeze” response, is the initial part of the brain that is stimulated,” explained Dr. Debi Lynes, LPC, CEDS. “A lie represents the fight response, whereas a response where you leave the conversation would be flight or looked dumbfounded would be freeze. At the fight-lie point, the adrenaline begins flowing.
Sweat pours. Pupils dilate. Your stomach churns.” Because our nervous system is connected to our immune system, lying, in turn, actually affects our overall health. Lynes illuminated that the severity of this consequence is, once again, not black and white, but dependent on the liar and the lie. She also warned, “When lying becomes a habit, actual neural pathways are pruned and new pathways are formed. It is at this point that lying may become the go-to pattern of behavior when challenged. Once it becomes a habit, the damage is done, because you have rewired your neurons and have laid an unhealthy, negative framework.”
This is when the physical manifests into the mental and adversely influences biological, sociologically and physiological systems. “With pattern and habit, we don’t change the gene. We change the way the gene behaves. This is called epigenetics. This, in turn, can change your core essence, which then transcends into the spiritual self,” Lynes said.
The person being told the lie can also exhibit an epigenetic shift. “When you are chronically lied to by someone you have faith in, you begin to question yourself and the authenticity and the reality of what other people present to you. It erodes your sense of self. Not only do you not trust the people around you, but you begin to not trust yourself,” Lynes said. You begin to ask yourself questions like, “Why do I have a relationship with someone who doesn’t tell me the truth?” “How can I believe anyone after I have been lied to?” and “Why am I unworthy to be told the truth? What am I lacking?”
“Someone who is genetically born with a good sense of self and no predisposition to depression or anxiety, who finds his or herself in a distrustful relationship, could then develop a poor sense of self, depression or anxiety,” Lynes said. “This is more common during developmental milestones such as early childhood and the teen to young adult stage (a particularly vulnerable and volatile time), but can also happen during other pivotal times in one’s life.”
Lynes then draws a fascinating distinction. “Lies are not always traumas, but traumas can often be a lie. Take PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder. For someone suffering from this, their neural pathways used to be like the good ship lollipop, but now everything is dark and gloomy,” she said. Here’s where a trauma can cause an epigenetic change, and suddenly a person’s perceived reality is very different from what it was in his or her past or what most other people deem real. “When you start to talk about lying in this regard, you start getting into a philosophical conversation. Why do we believe what we believe? It is a fabulous linguistic study,” Lynes said. This is also where the definition of the lie alters from speaking an untruth intentionally, to inadvertently believing, experiencing and expressing an untruth.
As Lynes continues, my mind wants to find a “glass is half full” scenario. I am reminded of the Vladimir Lenin quote, “A lie told often enough becomes the truth.” Then I think about the practice of positive thinking. What if you were having a horrible day and everyone kept asking you, “So how are you?” If you said, “I’m horrible!” you would be answering honestly, but could your response, especially if repeated multiple times throughout the day, actually make your day worse? Would it be more beneficial to say something more positive like, “I’m going to be great!” and create a better outlook and therefore outcome? (Note: A lie told to yourself is called a self-delusion.)
Over the past few weeks, I have polled people about this topic. Despite all the permutations of lying, most everyone agreed honesty truly is the best policy. Yet, no one and no amount of research could really tell me what’s in a lie. What’s its true weight? And then I remembered my grandmother once said, “Becca, every time you lie you lose a piece of your soul.” I have to believe she was telling me the truth.
Becca Edwards is a wellness professional, freelance writer and owner of b.e.WELL+b.e.CREATIVE (bewellbecreative.com).
Lying Statistics (Statistic Brain Research Institute)
• Percent of adults who admit to telling lies “sometimes” or “often”: 12
• Percent of women who admit to occasionally telling harmless half-truths: 80
• Percent of people who admit to lying on their résumés: 31
• Percent of patients who lie to their doctor: 13
• Percent of patients who “stretched the truth” to their doctor: 32
• Percent of patients who lied about following a doctor’s treatment plan: 40
• Percent of patients who lied about their diet and exercise regiments: 30
• Percent of people who lie at least once during a 10-minute conversation: 60
• Average number of lies per day by men to their partner, boss or colleagues: 6
• Average number of lies per day by women to their partner, boss or colleagues: 3