Lies and the Limbic Brain

Think about a time when you pretended to continue an uncomfortable conversation as you moved into another room. Sure, you could still talk back and forth, but it was more difficult. Another item soon occupied your focus, which ended the exchange.

Discomfort rules your limbic brain. That limbic lizard brain inside is what moves your body to a safer room when you’re uncomfortable.

I found myself doing exactly this earlier last week. Fleeing the scene of an accidental argument.

I didn’t recognize that it happened until just this very moment.

And while I had nothing to hide, I displayed some of the same behaviors of a liar.

Body Language can help uncover deception. Image "distant distance" by Rennett Stowe, Flickr, CC-By-2.0
Body Language can help uncover deception. Image “distant distance” by Rennett Stowe, Flickr, CC-By-2.0

We have spent the last few months learning to read body language. Looking for signs of comfort and discomfort, we can better understand the actions and motivations of the people around us.

These same tools can help us identify deception and lies.

Former FBI agent Joe Navarro’s book, What Every BODY Is Saying, contains a wealth of body language information that serves us best when we understand the context of a situation.

Remember your context, Navarro warns us as we begin to discuss deception.

Being nervous or displaying discomfort is not a sign of deception. People have trained themselves to lie, and they often believe themselves. It’s a survival mechanism. Detection is not easy.

Many people, including experts at lie detection, and you and I, are no better than a coin toss at detecting a lie, Navarro says.

But here’s how we do it.

Our initial goal is to build rapport and get comfortable with the interviewee. We want to work though early nervousness to build comfort and define their baseline behaviors. As the interview continues, we watch for a change away from that comfortable baseline behavior. In time, we start to ask for clarifying information about those topics that make the interviewee uncomfortable, to dig in and eventually understand the source of their discomfort.

When a person is uncomfortable and feels threatened, their lizard brain will take over their bodies. The limbic system will unconsciously try to protect the body.

Freezing still is one such protective response. Answers to questions might have little movement accompanying them, as the cognitive load required to move the body along with an uncomfortable situation might be difficult.

People may show signs of discomfort other than the freeze response. People will often use defensive postures such as turning away from a situation they don’t like, closing their eyes, and crossing their legs or arms. They might cover their torso with an item like a jacket or notebook. During the conversation, keep watch for pacifying behaviors such as rubbing the palms on the legs or touching high-nerve areas like the neck and lips.

These are not signs of lying, remember, but of discomfort. Watch for clusters of behavior that indicate the same limbic reactions to help reinforce your observations.

Digging into discomfort can help to root out deception. It can also ruin relationships. Image "Olga Oysterman," FSA photograph by Russell Lee, public domain, 1938
Digging into discomfort can help to root out deception. It can also ruin relationships. Image “Olga Oysterman,” FSA photograph by Russell Lee, public domain, 1938

And if you really need to know, dig in to those uncomfortable topics. But be aware that while you may not root out deception, you may unnecessarily damage a relationship. People have secrets for all kinds of reasons. Beware your Context.

To avoid cognitive bias, seeing more of what’s on our mind, it’s also important to watch for the signs of confidence and comfort that we’ve learned. People who tell the truth are emphatic with their bodily movements to emphasize their story. Their body is opened up and takes more space in the room. Watch for gravity-defying behaviors. Observe physical closeness and leaning towards others. Watch for confident hands and gestures.

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