I have always been fascinated by the way our brain works. Even though our brain only occupies a small percentage of our body space, but it is the central system that guides consciously and unconsciously of what we do in every single second of our lives. Listening to songs on the radio, watching movies, reading magazines or even a simple process of thinking about what you did five minutes ago would require the machine inside your head to work. You cannot also tell it to stop working. It is just working on its own. Even when you are sleeping, your brain is still working, retrieving all recollections of memory, and weaving them together into a new seemingly real experience we call ‘dreams’.
On the other day, I stumbled upon an article in Scientific American Mind about “honest lying”. Why do people lie? Why do people hide the truth? I think people would lie when there is something at stake in their lives. By hiding the truth, they would try to prevent themselves from losing things they hold dear in life such as possessions, pride, trust, love or confidence. People also lie because they want to gain something out of the act of lying. Lying is the means to an end, either obtaining new resources or power over the other. People do all sorts of things to cling onto all these worldly things.
One of my close friends, Uben, would enjoy meeting strangers and came up with different stories about himself. He just did it for fun and would sometimes involve me somehow. A few years ago, we both went to the post office together to rent a computer that could hook us up to the internet. Back in those days, we only had one place, one computer that helped us connect to the internet. It was terrible, the line was long, and you had to wait for hours to use the computer for 10 – 15 mins. We were waiting for our turn, and a guy came up and sat next to us. He was amazed that UBS and I were having a conversation in English, so he asked Uben of where I was from and why I was here in this town. Knowing Uben, what happened next was not a surprise at all. In a second, he successfully created a new identity for me of where I was from and what I was doing in this town.
However, the article in the magazine was nothing about the psychological reasons behind the act of lying, and I am not trying to unpack the reasons why my goofy friend UBS would enjoy lying to strangers. The article proposed an argument that when your brain suffers from diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Korsakoff’s syndrome, which is amnesia observed in chronic alcoholics, or brain trauma that damages the regions associated with memory or sensory perception, it could alter your perception of reality. It is suspected to be caused by damage to the Ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPC) of your brain. This is an area that assists us to differentiate between present and memories of the past. When this area is damaged, our brain cannot function properly to tell what is real or not. When our brain retrieves information from the past, it will access our memories. It happens when we reflect on things or even speak, but the unconscious process of retrieving the information is vulnerable to distortion. People with damage to this area would not be able to tell whether the retrieved information or events, are real or not. Interestingly, they genuinely believe in those lies, thus, honest lying. Your brain deceives you, and you are not even aware of it.
I was truly relieved to come across this article because I have observed a similar pattern in my friend’s mother. Her mother is a nice and warm woman. I have had fond memories of her even going back in the high school days. My friend, Linda, has been struggling with her mother’s behaviour for years, trying to understand why her mother would tell fascinating stories that were untrue. Her mother would come up with stories about what happened to her, what happened to Sasha, or her nieces and nephews. Unfortunately, most of the times, those were not lovely stories to hear. It enraged Sasha at times, as it used to involve or affect her other relatives as well. I have thought all along that her mother’s false claims are just a symptom of a brain trauma she suffered after the strokes, but I could not find any scientific basis to explain such behaviour. I found out last night that indeed she had gone through strokes on three occasions. I sense that people around her mother have started losing patience with all the stories she created and all the implications of the false claims. I am now happy that Sasha knows about this too and could help her siblings and relatives to see another possible explanation of why her mother behaves as such. Looking back, I have never realised how important the memories are for the underlying process in our brain. It helps us make sense of the world, inform and guide our future behaviour.