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How Lies Get Under Your Skin

We perceive information by experiencing and feeling it.

Key points

  • Lying is incredibly effective—even when we know something is a lie.
  • As we perceive information we embody it, experience it, feel it momentarily as if true.
  • People who understand how this works can manipulate those who don’t.

Lying is incredibly effective, even when we know something is a lie. To understand why, we need to dig deep into our evolutionary past, back to a time when our minds were simpler, more engaged with somatic experience.

Cognitive scientists believe that our minds evolved incrementally, that one system of intelligence developed on the foundation of previous ones such that, even today, we retain ancient ways of comprehending the world that lie deep beneath our modern capacity for thought. When we had simpler minds, things happened only if they really happened. A rock thrown at you would hit you; the smell of a predator meant your life was in danger; fear on the face of someone nearby indicated some kind of threat. Everything was real. Life was only real; we had not yet invented fiction. That came later, as we evolved into a species capable of art, language, stories, writing, film-making, and acting.

So true is the world of simple minds that the evolution of deceit is taken as a sign that ‘higher intelligence’ has evolved. Lying requires a complex mental conceptualisation of other minds. Our closest living relatives, the primates, are among the best animal liars. When primatologist Frans de Waal of Emory University studied chimpanzees at Arnhem Zoo in the Netherlands, he observed that one individual always limped only when in the presence of a strong rival. The fake limp presented him as no threat and so he avoided conflict. Studies show that primates think up innovative ways to mislead others, especially when there is food or sex at stake.

Enacting Reality

The mind before lies was a mind that felt the world—physically and emotionally. Before verbal language, we primarily relied on understanding the world by feeling how it felt, and this aspect of mind is still active today. When we see a sharp object or read or hear the word "sharp," our brain extracts the meaning of sharpness by exploring the physical sensation. Regions of our brain normally associated with touching and feeling sharpness become active. This happens all the time.

Our exploration of meaning involves action-perception mechanisms; our brains are hard-wired to enact our world as we perceive it—described in detail by neuroscientist Christian Keysers in The Empathic Brain and The Feeling of What Happens by Antonio Damasio. We feel our world in order to understand its meaning. But being largely unconscious, we are—by definition—not aware of perceiving everything as felt experience.

Somatic sensation does not discern truth from lie; only higher processing can do that. The reason is that you cannot have a somatic sensation of absence, only of presence. Hearing the phrase “pain in the neck,” your brain activates in regions dealing with sensory information about the neck and pain in order to process the meaning of that phrase. Similar activation occurs when you hear the phrase “not a pain in the neck” because to extract the meaning of the words pain and neck you need to have some activation of those same painful neck regions in the brain. Comprehension, even in modern humans, still involves the body as well as the brain. We feel as well as think to understand.

This is why we are advised to use affirmations. If we want to change our eating behaviour, for example, we may have more success if we affirm to ourselves that we must "eat more vegetables" than if we instruct ourselves to "not eat chocolate" which would have us feeling the experience of eating chocolate, which might stimulate a desire.

Although we think we are good at spotting lies, studies find we're right only about 50 percent of the time, which is no better than chance. Our modern intellect can attempt to spot deceit, but by the time we have heard a lie, we have already unconsciously felt—experienced—that information. If we read, for example, that a particular person has committed a horrible deed, extracting meaning from the words we read involves momentarily feeling that experience. This means that even if we later discover that this story is untrue, we have still experienced a bad impression of this person.

This process may account for the strange observation that a placebo effect can occur even when we know the pill we are taking is a placebo—so-called open-label placebo trials.

It does not matter if a lie is clearly a lie because the unconscious physical embodiment has already occurred. The information has been experienced—albeit by an ancient somatosensory part of our unconscious. Unfortunately, the majority of our behavior, thoughts, ideas, and emotions are unconscious rather than conscious processes.

Effective liars speak boldly, clearly and assertively, avoiding negatives. Anything, everything, we hear, read, see, is—at the somatosensory level—reality. The power of influential media, politicians, conmen, and marketers is to get past our conscious ability to discern truth from fiction and speak directly to that somatosensory assumption of reality.

Because lies impact on us at an unconscious somatosensory level, we are often unaware that we have fallen for them.


Schaefer M, Sahin T, Berstecher B. Why do open-label placebos work? A randomized controlled trial of an open-label placebo induction with and without extended information about the placebo effect in allergic rhinitis. PLoS One. 2018 Mar 7;13(3):e0192758. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0192758. PMID: 29513699; PMCID: PMC5841659.

Damasio, A. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. Mariner Books (reprint 2000).

Bargh, J. Before You Know It; The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do. Penguin (2017).

Keysers, C. The Empathic Brain. Social Brain Press (2011).

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