Obesely Speaking

The brain and obesity

Lying: What Humans Love Most and Do Best

Why we love lying and pretend we hate it.
Neel Burton, M.D.
This post is a response to How Do I Know When I Am Lying To Myself? by Neel Burton, M.D.

Compulsive eaters, alcoholics, and other addicts often die because they lie to themselves and others about their lives. Although never found on a resume, all humans are consummate liars. We tell between 20 and 200 lies a day experts say. Then we claim to detest lying, which of course, is another lie. For example, a woman once said to me, “I hate lying.” I thought, seriously, with that make-up and weave, you obviously dislike the truth much more than you hate lying. Then I proceeded to embellish my life because if Moses had seen her in those shorts, there would be at least 12 commandments—don’t judge me.

The dictionary defines a lie as “an intentional untruth made with the intent to deceive;” and deceive as “making someone believe something that is not true”; and true as “conforming with reality or fact.” Thus, any story that is not factual is a lie. Therefore, all fictional works of literature, and all non-factual stories, including biblical allegories such as parts of the Bible, are lies because they are not fact. However, we know there is a difference between a lie, and fictional works, even though the dictionary defines a story as “a factual or fictional account of an event,” and fiction as “something that is untrue and made up.” The difference is the intent.

Storytelling vs. Telling Stories

Storytelling is creating something in your imagination that does not exist and making it real for education or entertainment purposes. That is why a writer spinning a tale is an artist, and a person telling an untruthful story at a cocktail party is a liar, even though both may just be trying to entertain. Clearly there is a difference, although some stories completely lose their entertainment value if the audience knows they are not true, especially comedic stories. Imagine if a comedian began, “Well this story is not true, but a funny thing happened to me…” On the nightclub stage, telling a “funny thing happened to me…” lie is permissible, but not for a patron in the nightclub itself. Yet, in terms of storytelling, the mechanism is identical. In addition, to the extrovert attention whore, as the bard says, “All the world’s a stage.” Of course the bard, like Dante, was a notorious liar. People claim they do not like being deceived, which is another lie. People love movies and movies are a symphony of deceit: the make-up, hair, costumes, lighting, sound, editing, acting, special effects, directing and writing: lies, lies, and more lies—technically.

A person cannot successfully tell a lie unless there are people willing to believe it. Hence, lying is a cooperative act and a prime example of “there are no victims, only volunteers.” Deception is vital to humans, and the terms of usage are contextual at best. At the same nightclub, (where I might tell a funny, fabricated story, and be demonized for doing so), women are walking around with tons of make up and cosmetic surgery that is equally deceptive and much more expensive. Yet, a truth, such as, “I have butt implants,” “one testicle” or “daddy issues” would be just as unwelcome because humans feast on deception, but prefer nibbling on the truth. A prime example is assigning gender to clothing and behavior. Chromosomes and genitals determine gender. Clothing, behaviors, and social preferences do not have genitals or chromosomes, so “male and female clothing” and “masculine and feminine behavior” are lies. Just like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and body painted abs, hair weaves and perms are lies.

Lies and the Evolutionary Brain

Deception is a trait of the more developed brain. Now before you hit the comment button, when I say more developed brain, I am referring to species not individuals such as primates compared to reptiles. Reptiles cannot be deceptive beyond camouflage and ambush because advanced deception occurs in the orbital prefrontal cortex, which the reptilian brain lacks. Conversely, primates, especially humans, are hardwired for deception and start doing so at birth. Babies will fake cry, and stop and see if anyone is coming and then go back to crying. Women, drag queens, and metrosexual men are not above that either. One year olds are prone to concealment, two year-olds bluff, five year old manipulate via flattery, and nine-year olds are masters of the cover up. In one out of every five interactions, college students lie to their parents. Adults take lying to an entirely different level: politics, journalistic spin, advertising, spam, and ponzi schemes. Facebook took lying to a quantum level with fake identities, embellished posts, and photoshoped or fake profile pics.

Why compulsive overeaters, drug addicts and alcoholics lie

We lie because lying is an attempt to bridge the gap between who we are and who we want to be; the lives we have and the lives we want. When these bridges start burning as such bridges always do, the architects’ lives fall into deconstruction as a crowd of witnessing hearts stand by breaking, helplessly. It is not surprising, nor coincidental that the same brain regions that govern intertemporal choice (delayed gratification) also control the lying pathology associated with alcohol, narcotic, food, and behavioral addictions. The human brain uses its structures wisely. Lying and intertemporal choice (i.e. choosing the smaller immediate reward over the larger, delayed pay-off), are in essence the same. By deluding ourselves, and others, we reap the neurochemical benefits immediately that we would receive, if we could be who wished we were, and have the lives, we wished we had.

Will and Grace

There are two prevailing theories regarding human decision making in this area. They are the “Will” and “Grace” theories. The Will Theory says that honesty is the active resistance of temptation comparable to the controlled cognitive processes that enable delayed gratification. The Grace Theory says that honesty occurs because of the absence of temptation. Neuroimaging studies support The Grace Theory. Individuals who behave honestly do not exhibit control-related neural activity when choosing to behave honestly, compared with a controlled environment in which the opportunity for dishonest gain does not exist. Conversely, subjects displaying dishonest behavior have increased activity in control-related regions of the prefrontal cortex, both when choosing to behave dishonestly and when refraining from dishonesty. Regional activation in the orbital prefrontal correlates with dishonesty frequencies in individuals. Thus, the take home message is loud and clear. Honesty has nothing to do with actively resisting temptation, and everything to do with the presence or absence of temptation. This is humbling for those who believe they are honest because of his or her moral fiber or character.

Wait—before you hit the comment button, consider what opportunity means contextually in individual lives. The dictionary defines opportunity as “a combination of favorable circumstances or situations.” As my agent would say, “define favorable.” Favorable to the addict or compulsive overeater is a circumstance in which he or she can use deceit to bridge the gap between what they wish their reality was, opposed to what it actually is. The greater the disparity between the former and the latter, the more opportunity there is for and in dishonesty. The human brain is opportunistic and will always utilize all opportunity. The brain expresses opportunity on a neural basis, in terms of chemical rewards, such as dopamine and oxytocin. Assessment of social judgment and reconciling one’s behavior with one’s self-perception provides a contextual definition of opportunity and translates into neurochemical rewards on that basis.

Therefore, the key lies in lessening the disparity between your reality and what you think it should be, i.e. self acceptance. If you can trust the Universe more than your ego, then you can embrace who you are, and where you are, as what and where you are supposed to be. When you do that, you obviate the need for a bridge because there is no distance to bridge. Therefore, deception is no longer an opportunity capable of delivering neurochemical rewards and your opportunistic brain will drop it like it's twerking. That does not mean you abandon your dreams, change or pursuit of higher ground. Acceptance is not settling. It is placing the focus on going the distance rather than the distance you are going. So, say it with me children, “I love and accept myself, just as I am!” Remain fabulous and phenomenal!

 

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Billi Gordon, Ph.D., is  Co-Investigator in the  Ingestive Behaviors & Obesity Program, Center for the Neurobiology of Stress, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

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