Road to chaos: why you should stop lying

chaosLet’s admit it: all of us tell lies, for one reason or another. It’s part of our human nature. It’s had its utility during our evolutionary history and still has, or so we think. I believe that in very particular circumstances, lying might be a necessary and reasonable choice, for example to escape a life or death situation, but that’s pretty much it. Lying is usually used for the purposes of self-perseverance or social promotion and we, most of the time, go unaware of the repercussions of a lie.

But first let’s define what a “lie” is. A lie is to deliberately deceive someone with false information when they expect honest communication. It is, therefore, intended to make others form a belief that is not true.

We lie to make ourselves stand out, to avoid negative judgments, to hide wrongdoings. We sometimes lie to the ones we love to protect their feelings. We mislead to gain advantage, we hide the bad to highlight the good. But, undoubtedly, every lie is born out of the same principle: intending to communicate one thing while believing another.

The opportunity to deceive others is ever present, and for one reason or another, each and every one of us will hardly go to bed without having told a lie during the past waking hours. Some lies might be more subtle then others and the motivations might vary greatly, but at the end of the day, the one lied to will always be on disadvantage, because deception always provides with fake information.

Previous studies have found that deception is fairly common during communication, either within a couple or between friends (1, 2). Yet, we all know that truth is more rewarding in terms of interpersonal relationships than lies. Moreover, all forms of lying are associated with relationships of poorer quality (3, 4).

“Honesty is a gift we can give to others. It is also a source of power and an engine of simplicity. Knowing that we will attempt to tell the truth, whatever the circumstances, leaves us with little to prepare for. We can simply be ourselves.” by Sam Harris in ‘Lying’

I would like to focus my attention particularly on the “white lies”. Those lies we consider to be more benevolent because the intention is usually to spare the other person’s feelings, usually to tell her what we think she wants to hear. Let me give you an example that you will likely be familiar with:

Someone you’re very close too, a friend, a girlfriend, approaches you and asks: “Do you think I’m fat?”. The usual answer will be “No”, don’t you agree? We usually think that the person is asking for reassurance, and out of compassion we answer according to that assumption, because we don’t want her to feel sad. And most likely that’s what your friend wants, reassurance. But let’s suppose that your friend is actually fat and out of shape and you know that she is having an hard time with that situation, maybe feeling less self-confident. And you believe she could lose a couple of pounds and get in shape for many different reasons, but most of all she would feel happier and healthier, you think. A white lie, for the purpose of immediate compassion, would simply be the denial of that. You would simply pass the opportunity to guide her in a moment of difficulty, you would be failing as a friend and as a person. Now imagine you know someone that is struggling to follow a career path that you truly believe is not meant for him, that he could be using his skills to become the best on something else. Would you be able to tell him the truth and provide the guidance? That’s a difficult one as well. Most of us would be tempted to encourage him to try harder or tell him that with patience and perseverance he would make it, that “great things come for those who wait”. But, in this case, that would be a negative and destructive encouragement. That white lie would steal him time, energy and motivation that he could be putting on pursuing a better and more satisfying career.

Sometimes the truth might feel really hard to tell, but when you convey your true beliefs to others you provide them with the opportunity to reflect upon your truthful opinion and question their own beliefs on a constructive way. And you will be communicating your feelings of love and selflessness, deepening the relationship with that person.

I believe that the active search for honesty on every action often leads to a much more gratifying experience of interaction with another person. You create bridges instead of building walls, you inspire others into doing the same and feelings of trust and empathy will blossom from within your interpersonal relationships.

Of course that if you dwell in ethically questionable milieus, you will find lying a necessity to keep yourself on “track” or at least extend your time on those dwellings. For instance dealing drugs or scamming for profit. But if you want to make your way out of such vile actions, which will ultimately affect yourself and others around you, you will have to re-look at lies from a whole different perspective and you will see that they are no more useful than bullets are.

In relation with secrets, you might also assume that lying can be required in order to retain information you were asked not to disclose. I’m talking specifically about the kind of secrets that someone, a friend, asks you to keep (leaving aside those that are held for professional reasons, the case for instance with doctors and psychologists, for obvious reasons). And in my opinion, these should also be avoided from the very beginning. Because keeping a secret is a burden, and the story you have to tell in order to hold the secret can put you on a path of deception that you didn’t want to be dwelling into. You should make that very clear next time someone asks you “can I tell you a secret?”

When you lie you are creating a story that collides with reality, and to keep a lie you have to commit to the fictional story and keep track of the plot in order not to be caught, which is energy consuming and psychologically distressing. And, needless to say, no one wants to be perceived as liar. But when you are caught in the habit of using it for whatever reason, people start to get clues from the incongruities on your stories and behaviors, and trust begins to deteriorate. A liar is eventually shunned for reasons he probably never understands.

In our personal lives and within society in general, lies are the basis of all forms of vice. A willingness to lie is behind every adultery act, financial fraud, government corruption, murder, etc. This moral defect slowly corrodes bridges and feeds distrust. Falsehoods spread like disease and a lie brought up into reality can have unpredictable outcomes that always create collateral damage downstream.

The question now is: “How willing are you to embrace truthfulness and gradually eradicate lies from your interaction with others?”

I challenge you to make an effort to become aware of the moments when you are propelled to lie on your day-to-day life. Ask yourself if you can find a proper way to convey the truth, instead of lying, without harming yourself or someone. If not, what is there for you in the long-run if you’d stop lying. How would your relationships change? Could it play an important role on your personal development? Would you become a better person? How might you affect people around you and, consequentially, society if you resolved never to lie again?

These, I believe, are the type of questions worth answering.

References

Article inspired on the ideas developed by Sam Harris on his essay “Lying”

1- DePaulo BM, Kashy DA. 1998. Everyday lies in close and casual relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74: 63-79;

2- DePaulo BM, Kashy DA, Kirkendol SE, Wyer MM, Epstein JA1996. Lying in everyday life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 70 (5): 979 – 995

3- Kalbfleisch PJ. 2001. Deceptive message intent and relational quality. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 20 (1-2): 214-230

4- Cole T. 2001. Lying to the one you love: the use of deception in romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 18(1): 107-129

Finding the self: does science has something to say?

51951632_71eda9204e_b
When we start discussing about ideas still so dividing and controversial, we usually begin by wandering through philosophical realms before science is capable of providing us with stronger arguments. In neurosciences it is well understood that the brain is capable of creating illusions through a mechanism of ‘auto-filling’, which is useful during the process of making sense of the world around us with the information available at each moment. For example, let’s say you’re walking in the woods, at a given moment your brain perceives a snake dissimulated under the fallen leaves of a tree, adrenaline kicks in to make you aware of the danger and prepare yourself to ‘fight’ for your life. When you take a closer look, now with more information available because you focused all your conscious attention on that potential source of danger, you realize it is just an old rope and that there is no danger after all. At that first moment of reaction, your unconscious brain perceived a snake after sufficient information was available to increase the likelihood of it being a snake, and a primordial yet efficient defense mechanism was triggered, the “fight-or-flight” response. A series of inputs, like perceiving the woods as a propitious place for snakes, the sound of leaves being moved and an hidden object, somewhere in your field of vision, with a snake-like shape, triggered that response. The brain ‘filled in the gaps’ where information was missing, considering past experiences and genetic per-disposition, creating the illusion of a snake that wasn’t there after all. These illusions are created all the time in order to help us make sense of the world and be fit to ‘survive’ in it (I know we are not living in caves anymore but we bring a lot of baggage from those difficult times, evolutionarily speaking).

However, the idea that the sensation of having a self is an illusion itself, created by the brain, has been difficult to address out of the philosophical discourse. The illusion of the self is a theory that aims to describe the sensation of “I”, a sense of individuality, separateness and self-centered perception of reality, as a creation of the mind and the only thing there is that is aware of that sensation is consciousness. While this idea has been explored for millennia within religious and spiritual circles, being Buddhism the most impactful one, Science only had the audacity (and the resources, of course) to take on the challenge during the middle of the 20th century. A unique opportunity for research on the subject presented itself when a series of patients that were submitted to a callosotomy (a medical procedure to cut the corpus callosum, the main neuronal tissue that connects both brain hemispheres at the neocortex level) in order to treat serious cases of epilepsy started to show some strange yet interesting behaviors. These people are known as the “split brain patients”, and their condition is where I want to focus during the rest of this post.

Splitting the Brain

One of those patients is known in scientific literature as Vicky. Sometime after the procedure, Vicky started to experience some troubling behaviors. For instance, she would find a visit to the supermarket a complete ordeal. Both her hands would not agree on what to pick up from the shelf – “I’d reach with my right hand for the thing I wanted but the left one would come in and they’d kinda fight”. Getting dressed was also a challenge for the same exact reason. Her brain was behaving in some ways as if it was two separate minds. Before fMRIs became mainstream, these patients have proved valuable to determine differences between the hemispheres, which the communication highway has been severed. For example, the left side is where speech and language are mainly processed and the right side specialized in visual-spatial processing and facial recognition. Another patient, WJ, was asked, during one of the experiments, to press a button whenever he saw an image. The researchers would flash words to his left or right field of view . Since the light inputs in the left eye are processed by the right hemisphere and vice-versa, images presented to one side delivers the information to the respective hemisphere while the other is ‘blind’ to the stimuli.

Two-minds
From “The split brain: A tale of two halves” by David Wolman (see References)

WJ had no problem to tell the scientists what he saw when the stimuli was presented to the left hemisphere, or right eye. Yet, he would claim he didn’t see anything when the the image was shown to the right hemisphere, notwithstanding his left hand pressing the button every time a word appeared to the right eye. The left and right didn’t know what the other was doing. On a third experiment, a young patient was asked about who was his favorite girlfriend, with the word ‘girlfriend’ presented to the right hemisphere. He couldn’t answer verbally. His right-hemisphere has seen it, but the language processing left-hemisphere remained unaware. Then, using his left hand (which is controlled by the right-hemisphere, but I’m pretty sure you know that by now), the boy spelled LIZ with the letter tiles in front of him. There is no doubt that the right-hemisphere is experiencing the world but it cannot communicate verbally, only by controlling the left hand.

Despite the impressive effects of splitting the brain through callosotomy, researchers have reported that the patients involved in the studies never expressed feeling anything less than whole, that is, they would still have a unified sense of self. The hemispheres didn’t miss each other in some sense. Further experiments were carried out where subjects were asked to explain with words actions directed and carried out by the right hemisphere. The left-hemisphere would make up a post-hoc answer to fit the situation. This observation has huge implications related with the ‘story-telling’ capacity of our brain. It is important to mention that in split-brain procedures the brain is never completely split. The sub-cortical region, a more primitive region of the brain, continues connected (or the person would become seriously impaired or even die). Patients that mastered a skill before the surgery would still be able to coordinate the hands for the task, for example a fisherman would still be able, with no apparent difficulties, to tie a fishing line (it is coordinated by deeper sub-cortical levels of motor control), but when introduced to less familiar tasks, he would have a hard time to complete them. There are other clinical cases where the self seems to malfunction spectacularly. In Cotard Syndrome, for instance, the victims believe they do not exist, even though they admit having a life history, or in ‘Dissociative Identity Disorder”, the person seems to harbor multiple selves, each with its own name, memory and voice.

There is still a long way to go until science is capable to clearly describe the self, determine where it is ‘created’ in the brain, how it can survive radical surgical procedures like in split patients, how it can change completely in some cases and how this not-so-apparent illusion shapes our very perception of reality and influence the consciousness in creating the narrative of our life. Consciousness is, without a doubt, a mysterious entity and I believe that the self is itself something that exists as long as there is consciousness to be aware of it, it cannot exist independently of a brain, and it is therefore not real, an illusion. But like our thoughts, sensations, emotions, it is a product of the chemistry of the brain and there is only consciousness at the end to be aware of all of that. The stream of consciousness is all there is, and even if you suffered a serious amnesia or your psychology was replaced by Donald Trump’s, you would still have consciousness. But would you still be You?

References:

  1. David Wolman. 2012. The split brain: a tale of two talves. Nature 483,260–263;
  2. Jim Holt. 2014. Is there such thing as a self? Prospect Magazine;
  3. Sam Harris. 2012. The Illusion of the Self: An Interview with Bruce Hood.

Coursera:

Buddhism and Modern Psychology by Robert Wright, Princeton University

Ideas to inspire: the self

15099014859_185501a5da_h
Photo by Christian Weidinger

Life goes on pretty much the same in every person’s life. I mean, since the day we’re born until the day we die, despite all the different and virtually infinite number of paths that each one might take, from the most successful to the least, from the richest to the poorest (whatever the definition of these words), we all have this special thing in common: self-awareness. A unique capacity that give us a sense of self and an inner voice which are fruits of millions of years of evolutionary pressure that shaped the mind and created consciouness in the process. Scholars believe that consciousness itself evolves and several degrees of complexity exist in the universe, with humans probably occupying a top place in this process.
It is in this plane of consciousness where the inner voice exists, the same place where thoughts and feelings arise at each waking moment, letting us experience the world on a subjective way, ponder and question about our past, present and future. An internal monologue that gives us a sense of free will and control of the story of our lives. The sense of self is a necessary and most important part of our human experience, ingrained in our minds and allowing us the conscious experience of the outside world, as if we are the main actor of our own reality. But there is a baggage that comes with that sense of self and that most humans can relate to but probably have never thought of, which is related with our close relationship, even a sense of ownership, to our thoughts and feelings. After all, aren’t I my mind? Aren’t I what arises from it? Isn’t my personality and behaviors constructed by the mind itself and therefore who I am? It definitely feels like it, don’t you agree? At least most of my lifetime I’ve felt like I am me! And let’s be honest, that hasn’t always been pleasant, to believe that I was certain thoughts that I’ve had in the past, that they were made by me. I mean I think I am a good guy, but I had my doubts along the road. A couple of examples of my confusion about who I am (or who I was – there is some debate about the linearity of the “self”) were 1) my growing uncertainty about my religious convictions and ideologies at a certain age (how can an honorable catholic young man, respected by the community, start having doubts about his own God, eventually becoming a convict atheist?), 2) my adolescent phase of sexual discovery, when I became a victim of the conflicts between biology and social conventions/symbols (am I weird because I don’t like what others like, or what societies says I should like?), 3) my moral code conflicting with my thoughts, like the wicked desire of wanting someone hurt for whatever reason, when I know it’s not in accordance with my own morals (should I feel guilty because of that? Is it a sign that I am a bad person? Or is it jusy the limbic system taking control during a stressful situation?); and the list of examples could continue further on but, hopefully, you can personally relate to those examples to attest my point. And my point is to show you that we are, normally, deeply attached to our feelings and thoughts to the point of feeling no differences between the ‘I’ and the ‘thought’ or ‘feeling’, and that can bring a serious amount of unhappiness, self-doubt and confusion to our lives. But the twist here, which is the idea I wanted to share with you, is not that there exists, after all, a fundamental separation of the self and the thoughts/feelings to solve our problems. Instead, the twist is even more groundbreaking: there is actually no such thing as a self at all, because the self is an illusion. You must be thinking “wow, this guy is just nuts and just wasted my time”. Well, I might be nuts to some extent (but who isn’t), however in what regards the idea of “illusion of the self”, that was not my creation or invention but, instead, a blossoming and mind-blowing idea being discussed and debated among philosophy and psychology academics that dedicate their time studying the mind and its best kept secrete, the consciousness. Since consciousness became a serious subject of study in that milieu, a growing body of evidence has been suggesting that the self is probably an illusion, naturally selected by evolution for not-so-obvious reasons (it’s been suggested that it brought tremendous benefits as a survival tool, mainly as the ‘social relations’ part of the brain). But on a modern and developing world, where natural selection is no longer affecting us, with all the progresses in science, medicine and the technological development, the collateral damages of a set of psychological traits that were selected thousands of years ago (the challenges we face today are totally different then the ones our ancestors faced during millions of years of evolutionary pressure) are nowadays very present and affecting each and every one of us, and it is truly illuminating when you discover that such new ideas are being theorized and researched by scientists around the world. And the beautiful thing about such mind-opening ideas is that they are so controversial and ahead of their time at their very beginning (see natural selection in Darwin’s epoch) but when that threshold is reached, after long deliberations, fortuitous debates and scientific corroboration, and society accepts it as true, we have reached a step further in our collective evolution . Following an emerging new theory, being on the forefront of its intellectual acceptance and starting to look at life through its lens is truly life-changing and liberating. As we add this new idea to our universe and it becomes more integrated into the patterns of our own perception, affecting our cultural worldview and restructuring our psychology, a new sense of the world will reveal itself.

PS: I didn’t go into the description of the theory because I am not an expert on the field and that wasn’t the objective of this post, but I would be glad to leave you with a couple of suggestions for you to dive deeper into the subject. First, you can start by a Google search (always a good start) about “illusion of self” and then go with the great book “Waking Up” by the prominent neuroscientist Sam Harris, which will give you some insight on the topic. I can also recommend the online course “Buddhism and Modern Psychology” in Coursera, where the illusion of the self is very well explained (supported by peer-reviewed scientific articles) and you will be introduced to a new emerging theory of the mind, the modular mind. And with that I think you will be very well served and, hopefully, the seed will be planted.