The Lying Brain: Do We Really Know Why We Do What We Do?

How does our brain control our tastes, preferences and desires?

The  brain  is at the base of everything we are and do.

It is the seat of our  personality, responsible for  our emotions, and how we feel during the day; but it is also the organ that enables us to chew gum, kick a ball, go out for coffee with a friend, read a book, plan where we will go on vacation, prepare a practical job for college, fall in love, choose a church to get married , and thousands and thousands of etceteras. From the seemingly smallest and most trivial action to the most sophisticated mental processes.

In order to do all this, it would be logical to think that the human brain is an organ perfectly prepared to process rationally and consciously all the information that comes to us from the environment. However, the brain does not always work on the information that we consciously process, and there are even times that the mental processes that guide our behavior spontaneously generate lies.

Lying brains and short circuit hoaxes

The first thing we must know to better understand why the brain does not have to work from objective information that comes to us through the senses is that the brain is divided into two large structures that are known as  cerebral hemispheres. 

The left hemisphere and the right hemisphere are, in appearance, morphologically the same, as if one were the mirror image of the other. They are found on both sides of the head, slightly separated by an external fissure, but connected inside by a thick bundle of nerve fibers called the corpus callosum.

Left hemisphere: the rational and analytical part

The left hemisphere is the seat of analytical understanding, numerical understanding, and logical analysis. Also here is the region responsible for  language.

Right hemisphere: non-verbal and emotional information

The right hemisphere is more concerned with processing the non-verbal and affective information of language, such as the tone of the voice, the rhythm and the emotional meaning of what you are hearing.

The corpus callosum is responsible for complementing both hemispheres

As can be seen, these differences are complementary. The two hemispheres make up a whole; the brain works as a unit, and it is precisely the corpus callosum that allows permanent communication and interaction between both structures. Another fact that is not minor: the left hemisphere controls the right side of the body, and the right hemisphere controls the left side.

Let’s see a simple example. If we close right and look at the photograph of a tulip, the stimulus travels preferentially to its left hemisphere, and from there it crosses to the right hemisphere through the corpus callosum. In this way, our brain perceives the image in its different aspects but in an integral way. You get a thorough understanding of what you are observing; we can assure you without a doubt that it is a tulip. We are able to describe it and even remember everything we know about that flower.

But… what does this have to do with deception?

A few years ago, a group of scientists noticed a series of strange phenomena in patients diagnosed with epilepsy and who had recently undergone an operation known as ablation of the corpus callosum.

Epilepsy reveals something important to us

Of course, there are different types of epilepsy and of varying magnitude, most of them controllable with medication. But in severe cases, when the frequency and intensity of the attacks are very high and all possible treatments have been exhausted, there is a last resort.

It is a surgical intervention in which the corpus callosum is sectioned, leaving the cerebral hemispheres permanently disconnected. Of course, this does not cure the disease, but at least it prevents the epileptic seizure that begins in one of the cerebral hemispheres from taking the opposite side of the road by storm through the corpus callosum.

But it turns out that the procedure leaves some unsuspected sequelae, a series of side effects as strange as they are intriguing. When patients were asked why they had made a  certain decision, and depending on which hemisphere processed the information, they could openly lie in their answers, and what was worse, they seemed not to be aware that they were doing so.

Some examples of ‘neurological lies’

If an ordinary person is asked to take a specific action, such as closing his eyes, and then asked why he did it, he will naturally reply that he has simply simply obeyed the order given to him . But that expected response, sincere and spontaneous, changed dramatically when the neuropsychologist leaned over the recently operated patient and whispered the order to the left ear, and then asked him about the reasons for his behavior, but to the right ear.

In that case, to everyone’s surprise, the patient gave a false answer.

“My head hurts a little, and I need to rest my eyes,” he could say calmly, with the assurance of someone who knows himself honest and is telling the truth.

“Raise an arm,” could be ordered to the left ear. “Why did you do that?”, It was then asked in the right ear. “Well, I’m a bit stressed and I needed to stretch,” the patient replied most amused.

What was happening?

Let’s do a review. Information collected by one side of the body travels to the contralateral hemisphere, on the opposite side. If certain data enters through the left eye or ear, it travels to the right hemisphere, and then integrates with the rest of the brain, crossing the corpus callosum.

We also know that language is a well-lateralized function, and that it is located largely in the left hemisphere. It can be said, simplifying the subject a bit, that the right hemisphere of the brain is a mute hemisphere.

If we combine these two knowledge, we have the answer to the problem.

When the hemispheres are disconnected from each other …

If the bridge connecting the two halves of the brain is dynamited, the seizure is restricted to one of the hemispheres. But the same will happen then with any information that you enter through the senses.

Any instructions that the experimenter might give the patient were trapped in the right hemisphere. That is, this side of the brain knew the true reasons for performing the requested action, but when the patient was asked, they could not verbalize them, since the language areas are in the other half.

In return, the left hemisphere can speak, but it does not know what is happening. He has followed the behavior carried out by the individual, since when he touched the tip of his nose or stood on one leg, both eyes monitored what he was doing, although he could not account for why.

However, and here comes the surprising thing, far from admitting with humility its ignorance, of accepting that it does not have the answer for everything it observes, the left hemisphere ventures to give an explanation, which in principle may sound reasonable, but in The reality is very far from the true motives that gave rise to the behavior.

“Why has he started singing?” The patient was asked after giving the order to the right hemisphere.

“Suddenly that melody came to mind,” the left hemisphere responded. Or: “I think I feel especially happy today.”

To the question: “Why is he scratching his head?”, The patient with split cerebral hemispheres looked surprised at the man in the white coat who is evaluating him and replied, with a certain disdain: “Because it itches, what else? could be?”.

Beyond the anecdote

In light of these discoveries, it is legitimate to think that one of the many functions of the left hemisphere is the interpretation of reality. The justifications that these people make of their actions are the result of the efforts that the brain makes to make sense of what it is observing.

The human brain has evolved to help the individual better understand and adapt to the complexity of a changing world. For this reason, one of its main functions is to interpret reality, formulate and put forward theories that can explain the vicissitudes to which we are exposed during the course of our lives.

Sometimes these theories are true and adjust well to reality, but everything seems to indicate that most of the time they are only mere speculations that are nevertheless taken as valid by the person, since their acceptance contributes to creating certainty in a world full of mysterious phenomena. Thus appears the feeling of control over the uncontrollable.

In this way, the left hemisphere is a tireless maker of rationalizations, illusory arguments created to satisfy its own expectations and to make this world a little more predictable. And what is valid for external stimuli, that is, everything that enters through the sensory channels, is also valid for internal stimuli, that is, thoughts.

Custom made realities … or just lies

The brain collects information from the world through the five senses, but it is also true that it does not need sight or hearing to generate thoughts. And thoughts, furthermore, are the raw material for mental representations, that accumulation of explanations with which we justify everything we are and do, both to ourselves and to others.

We have an explanation for everything but … Is that the real explanation? Or is it just one possible interpretation among so many others?

Why do we buy one brand of jam and not another? Why do we go to the cafeteria on the other block and not the one on the corner? Why did we opt for a two-door vehicle and not a four-door? Why do we like Mozart and not Beethoven? Why do we prefer Mar de las Pampas to go on vacation instead of the mountains of Córdoba? Why are we dating Fulana and not Mengana? Why did we decide to study Law and not Medicine?

These are all questions that we can usually answer with ease, but are our answers reliable?

We do not know very well why we do what we do, and what is worse, we ignore the external influences that may have pushed us to do this or that thing.

On other occasions, the exact opposite happens: we overestimate factors that are hardly related, giving them a weight or power that is not such. This is what often happens when we undergo a certain treatment, with a certain amount of positive expectations.

The simple fact of believing that a therapy is going to help us to feel better about ourselves, or to lose weight, or to control the anxiety that afflicts us, makes us experience a much more important improvement than could be objectively realized. And the greater the time and money invested, the more convinced we will be of the benefit obtained.

In conclusion

How can we be sure, after learning about these experiments, that the explanations with which we go through life are nothing other than the product resulting from a part of our brain willing to comment on everything and obsessed with arguing about what we is happening?

Well, dear reader, now you know that we cannot take our own beliefs and thoughts too seriously, and this includes all those “certainties” about ourselves and others.

The history of humanity shows the dire consequences of letting ourselves be carried away by fanaticism and seemingly unquestionable ideas. We must always try to keep in mind that our worldview, the way we see the world, is only one possible “interpretation”, but not necessarily true or the only one. To the extent that we allow ourselves to doubt and dare to dive into questioning, we will slowly but inexorably approach the truth.

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