Monday, June 5, 2017

Lying and memory

Somewhere the great historian Frederick William Maitland likened doing history to predicting the past. He couldn't have known but brain science has come to support that view. What our brain does is two things: it predicts a pattern and it watches for variances on that pattern. When you first open your eyes in the morning, your brain is already prepared for what it expects to see. It will calmly register nothing if nothing is unusual. If anything is out of place, it will focus on that and you will spend a few conscious moments determining that the dark blob in the middle of the floor is a sock and not a rat. And then you'll go back to normal.

Our entire memory of the past is what our brain expects to be there. That is to say, we only remember anything because our brain has been trained to be ready to respond to possible challenges. You remember your name, your birthplace and birth date, what schools you went to and whatever else you remember because you expect to be asked about these things and the only reason you expect to be asked is because you've been trained to expect to be asked by people asking you. It was important to remember who you had for math in Grade 10 and so your brain got good at storing that detail. And you might continue to remember it long after it ceases to be useful.

Most of the time, being able to answer "correctly" means being able to perform successfully. It means being able to give and sustain an answer. I'm asked who my teacher is and I give an answer that others will accept. We forget how scary that can be in Grades 1 and 2. You go to recess on the first day and kids you know ask you "Who you got?" If you can't pull up a credible answer, you'll be mocked and shunned. That's pure terror at that age.

A lie is a kind of performance. It's an attempt to sustain an answer. Forget about dictionary definitions about "false statements" because both "false" and "statement" very sophisticated notions that you learn years after you're expected to know what "lying" and "telling the truth" are.

From your brain's perspective lying has a lot more in common with telling the truth than we like to admit. Your brain predicts a pattern of response and most of the time you try to give the answer that will sustain that pattern. Very early on in life you will encounter bullies who will teach you in no uncertain terms that answering questions is a high-risk activity. For our brains, the "right answer" and the "safe answer" are just two ways of saying the same thing.

Lying is like picking your nose, masturbating or putting things in your mouth. That is to say, these are things that every child will naturally do unless and until they are taught not to. You do these things because they feel safe and good and the only way your parents and other authority figures have to make you stop is to make these things feel unsafe. Explaining to you why you shouldn't do these things isn't going to be enough. You have to think they are unsafe and the best way adults have of conveying that message is to actually make it unsafe for you to do them. At which point the difference between your mommy and the schoolyard bully can get a bit blurry.

There is a good reason why the theological virtues are faith, hope and love and not loyalty, trust and obedience. A good gang member can have all of the second set while being a drug dealer, pimp and murderer. And yet, mommy and all your elementary school teachers spent more time trying to teach you the latter three virtues.

Don't blame them for this. You can't really teach faith, hope and love. You can "model" them to a point but we only use ugly jargon like that when we're lying to ourselves.

Any time we answer a question, including questions about the past, our brain is scanning for signs that something is going wrong. This happens on two levels. The first level is to monitor responses from other people. We get tense during conversations that are going badly long before we are consciously aware that another person is challenging us. At the same time, our brains also monitor ourselves. But not by "looking inside". For our brain, our bodies are just another data source. Heart rate, sweating, hesitant voice patterns, these are just data that our brain monitors and then evaluates based on the context.

Once we start operating at a very sophisticated level—which is to say after years an years of social training—we get to the point where we start monitoring our answers not only to see if they are safe performances in this particular context but also to see what impact they might have on other predictable contexts. The girl in the schoolyard asks you a question and you consider not only what is safe to say right now but also whether that will continue to be safe if she goes straight to the teacher or her mother and repeats what she said. Included in that calculation will be an assessment of how likely she is to do that.

And part of that is considering what you've said in other contexts. When we learn the right answer we are also taught that the right answer will be consistent with other things we say. Again, bullies are some of our most important teachers in this regard.

It's often said that liars have to have good memories but that is nonsense. Everyone who answers questions has to have a good memory in order to figure out what performance to give in response. The only reason to develop a memory in the first place is to be able to perform successfully. When tiger kittens play with one another, they are developing memories of moves that will eventually help them pull down and kill prey.

Human beings accumulate and process memories on a very sophisticated level. It's odd that we attribute more sophistication in doing so to liars—for when we say "liars have to have good memories" we are really praising an odd figure we might call "a good liar". But stop a minute and consider when we use that expression. It's always when we've caught a liar. We're effectively telling them that they had better become better performers if they want to try pulling that off again.

What gets missed in all this is that truth-telling is actually a sophisticated performance of its own. It requires us to assess our answer-performance not just in terms of what will happen right now but also in terms of what might happen given a whole lot of of other possibilities.

This is why your girlfriend or wife will almost always lie to you about her some sexual issues. Stone-faced denials will almost always be the safest answer. She can easily imagine ways that telling you the truth will lead to disaster whereas the odds of your being able to determine what she really thinks or really has done are vanishingly small.

And that is important because she will, in other contexts, insist that it is important to tell the truth and perhaps even insist that being a truth teller is part of who she is. The second the man in her life asks certain questions, she is just like that scared little girl confronting the bully in grade school and the only answer that will ever come out of her mouth is what she judges to be the safest one.

This runs against what we tell ourselves about truth telling. We want to believe that it is a simple matter to tell the truth. You just say what you believe to be true.

It can't be to say what you know to be the truth. Think of our school kid on day one being asked who his teacher is. "I don't remember," is not a safe answer. You're supposed to know. The same is true during a math test. We're taught very early on that giving the right answer is not to say what you know and believe but to say what you are supposed to know and believe.

What kind of sadist looms over a small child and tells her that it's simple to tell the truth? It's far more effective to tell the child that its brave to tell the truth. That said, there is something manipulative about both these behaviours.

To lie is "to knowingly make a false statement". When is a child asked to make a statement? Statements are what you make to the police. No child is asked to make a statement to the teacher, principal or to mommy. She is asked to make a particular kind of performance in a particular context.

In order for a child to learn how to tell the truth, her parents need to know when it is acceptable to ask for the truth. You need a good reason to ask questions. Not just because it isn't fair to ask, although it sometimes isn't, but because the child needs to learn that there are good reasons to tell the truth in certain contexts. She needs to learn that telling the truth can be the loving thing to do. And she's not stupid, she's going to figure out early on that a lot of people will ask her for the truth because they want to hurt her and others.

Okay, but what about the title for this post. What does truth have to do with memory? Telling the truth reinforces memory. If we keep repeating the truth to others, we get better and better at remembering it. In some contexts that is a very good thing to do.

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