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One of the brain’s amygdalae, behind our greater willingness to lie

One of the brain’s amygdalae, behind our greater willingness to lie

Researcher Neil Garrett has found that the more someone lies, the more the brain adapts to this behaviour, until it stops reacting with feelings of shame or remorse.


What happens when we lie? Why is it that some people keep lying time after time? Postdoctoral researcher Neil Garrett, from Princeton’s Neuroscience Institute (US), looks at how the brain reacts to emotions, with a view to gaining a better understanding of how we feel when presented with certain situations. In particular, he has discovered that one of the amygdalae is responsible for the times when we lie.

Garrett, who received his Ph.D from the department of Experimental Psychology at University College London (UK), states that when someone lies the amygdala located in the part of the brain associated with emotion becomes active.

A set of neurons process the reactions which are subsequently translated into shame or remorse. However, if someone is dishonest time after time, the brain eventually adapts. The amygdala response drops, as does the feeling of remorse. Consequently, cheating becomes easier.

The British scientist often uses the example of someone who looks at an unpleasant picture for the first time. That person will most likely have a strong emotional response. However, if they see that same picture every day, they end up getting used to it. That person’s brain adapts and does not have such a strong reaction anymore.

To prove this hypothesis, Garrett and his team conducted some research where they combined computer science, brain imaging and behavioural economics (which studies people’s behaviour when they are faced with different economic situations).

They conducted an experiment in which participants gave financial advice to a second person and were encouraged to make their advice dishonest. The participants started off being just a little bit dishonest, but this grew into much larger acts of dishonesty.

The researchers used a technique known as functional magnetic resonance imaging to analyse changes in the participants’ brains while they told lies. They found that, at first, the brain region associated with emotional processing had a very strong response. However, the more people lied, the weaker that response was. As the amygdala’s response continued to fade, participants started to become more and more likely to cheat.

Projects like this help us to better understand the brain, about which many things remain largely unknown. In fact, Garrett’s research provides the first empirical evidence that dishonest behaviour has a biological explanation. However, Garrett himself, who participated as a speaker in EmTech France 2017’s latest edition, states that his purpose goes beyond merely understanding human biology better. He understands his work as a first step towards stopping immoral behaviour in society.

One of his ideas involves finding different ways in which we could stimulate the brain to stop people from lying. He believes that many big instances of dishonesty start from much smaller instances. If we could stop the latter from happening, we could start envisaging a world without lies.