Neuroscience and Society: To Tell the Truth!

Elizabeth Loftus, Charles Dike, and Victoria Talwar

In the animal kingdom, humans have the unique distinction of being the species that tell lies, which researcher Victoria Talwar describes as “verbal statements made with the intention to deceive.” An emphasis is placed on the word “intention” because this is what distinguishes lies from other false statements, such as mistakes or sarcasm. During a Neuroscience & Society program held this week in conjunction with the International Neuroethics Society’s annual meeting, Talwar described her work on the development of understanding behind truth and lying in children. Fellow panelists Elizabeth Loftus focused on the malleability of human memory and how this affects honesty, while Charles Dike described the layers of many questions behind pathological liars and the distinctions this type of lying has from others.

One point all three speakers shared is that lying is a normal part of life; it follows stages of cognitive development and persists into adulthood. Adults tell an average of one lie a day, said Talwar and Dike.

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Free Public Event: To Tell the Truth!

Truth and Lying.jpg

Image: Shutterstock

Truth and lying are complicated neurological behaviors. Although the role of the visual cortex and other areas of the brain are being identified, and their functions clarified, it is not likely that there is a “truth” center in the brain or a “lying” center. Scientists try to identify neurological correlates of truth-telling and lying in the laboratory, but it is not known if any findings of this type are operative in real life. This program will examine three important real-life aspects of truth and lying.

First, are we born with the ability to understand the concept of truth and lying? Victoria Talwar will discuss the childhood development of a sense of lying and truth-telling. Second, do our “minds” know what is true and what is false? Elizabeth Loftus will describe the phenomenon of so-called repressed memories and how it is possible for someone to be convinced they are telling the truth when they are not. Finally, what do we know about people who are consistent liars? Charles Dike will explore the nature of pathological lying and why some people lie seemingly without purpose.

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Why Lie? Why Not?

Three NPR science reporters stepped out of the radio studio and onto the stage at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, DC, Thursday for an evening of story-telling about the lies, big and small, we tell ourselves and others.

In "A Fishtale: The Lies that Bind Us," Jon Hamilton, Alix Spiegel, and Shankar Vedantam used the story of two Milwaukee boys who, in 1982, came home from fishing carrying two giant salmon—and a very fishy story about how they got them. Hamilton dissected what we know about the brain's ability to lie, while Spiegel focused on the person-to-person aspects and Vedantam on how lying works at the level of larger groups and society. In addition, we got to hear from the family members and a half-dozen researchers via audio and video clips.

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