“I’m Fine” – How you can sense when someone is lying

whisperHave you ever spent time with someone who said they were fine, when they tell you that everyone was OK in their life, but after you left you had a nagging feeling that everything really was not fine?

I’ve felt that on several occasions, usually with a friend or family member, and I’m sure they have felt the same in my presence too when I’ve tried to pretend that I was better than I really was.

We should rely on our senses more often. Part of the intuition equation is how the brain ‘reads’ emotion from facial expressions. It’s quite automatic, and relies on the mirror neuron system (MNS).

When you’re around someone who is happy, your brain copies, or mirrors, the movements of their smile muscles. Similarly, when you’re with someone who is sad, your brain mirrors the movements of the muscles that convey sadness. But your brain doesn’t stop there. It also replicates the movements of their smile or sadness muscles in you (why you smile around happy people, for instance) as well as the emotion that goes along with it (why you feel happy around happy people). It’s called ‘Emotional Contagion’.

When a friend says, “I’m fine” and she or he is really not, your brain picks up the tiny movements of the muscles that convey stress and sadness, ultimately causing you little, momentary, flashes of stress or sadness. So when they keep on saying everything is great, it results in you just getting a feeling that something isn’t right.

One of my favourite studies in this area was done in 1992. Researchers at the University of Hawaii asked volunteers to watch videotapes supposedly of Polish factory workers being interviewed at high school reunions. (View a PDF of the paper here)

Ensuring that none of the volunteers could speak Polish, they dubbed the voice and played an audio of the supposed translation, spoken by an actress who simulated a computer-like voice to ensure that she wasn’t conveying any emotional information; you know, like when you’re happy and your voice goes up. Of course, it wasn’t the real translation they played.

The volunteers were shown four clips:

a) The Happy-Happy clip. This is where the voiceover fake ‘translation’ had the worker describing a happy event and this was true; she was describing a happy event.

b) The Happy-Sad clip. This is where the voiceover fake translation was describing a happy event, but the worker was actually describing a sad event.

c) The Sad-Happy clip, where the voiceover was saying the worker was sad, but she was actually happy, describing a happy event.

d) The Sad-Sad clip, where the voiceover was saying ‘sad’ and she was, indeed, describing a sad event.

If there was no emotional contagion and we just took what people said at face value, we would just rate people’s emotional state according to what they tell us. But I think you know what’s coming.

The volunteers were asked to rate the emotional state of the factory worker in each clip on a simple scale. If there was no emotional contagion, the volunteers would give the same scores in videos (a) and (b), because the voiceover was of the worker describing a happy event. But, in actual fact, they rated her happiness much lower in clip (b), because the facial expressions betrayed how she was really feeling.

What’s more, through emotional contagion, their own emotional state also moved in the direction of sadness when they watched clip (b), according to measurements taken before and after. In other words, despite what the voiceover was saying, the people watching the clip actually ‘caught’ her real emotion.

The same kind of thing was found looking at clips (c) and (d). The voiceovers described sad events, yet in (c) the worker was really describing a happy event. Indeed, the volunteers rated her happiness higher than they did for video clip (d), and their own emotional state was happier than it was after watching video clip (d).

So, in other words, the study suggests that if you watch someone say they’re happy but really they’re not. Their facial expressions will give away how they really feel. Even though they try to make their faces appear happy, muscles ‘flash’ with emotion faster than the conscious mind can usually override them.

Usually, the flashes last no more than a few one thousandths of a second. But that is more than enough for the rather sophisticated mirror neurons in your brain that literally work ‘faster than the eye can tell’.

So, I guess, my advice would be to trust your intuition more.


Reference: C. K. Hsee, E. Hatfield, and C. Chemtob, ‘Assessment of the emotional states of others: conscious judgments versus emotional contagion’, Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 1992, 11, 119-128

How Mirror Neurons Can Help Dementia Patients

mirror neuronIf you’ve read some of my other blogs you’ll be familiar with the Mirror Neuron System (MNS). If this is your first visit, then Welcome!

Mirror neurons do what they say on the tin, so to speak. They are brain cells (neurons) that are involved in mirroring what you perceive.

So if you’re watching me flex my fingers, your brain thinks you’re flexing your fingers. These cells mirror what you see me doing so in some ways your brain doesn’t distinguish between whether you’re watching someone doing something or doing it yourself.

Research has shown that the MNS can be utilized to help speed the recovery from a stroke. In one study, stroke patients were given a month-long course in physiotherapy but half of them also watched able bodied people make simple hand and arm movements – like eating something or turning the pages of a book.

Their mirror neurons kicked in and now their brain was thinking that they actually were moving their hands and arms, even though they were watching someone else doing it. So as far as their brains were concerned they were doing extra movements.

At the end of the study, those who watched the able bodied people (it was described as ‘Action Observation’) had recovered more than those who only had the physiotherapy.

The effect is really far-reaching. In one piece of research, volunteers stretched open an elastic band between their index and middle fingers. They did 25 reps of this every two days until they had done the ‘training’ six times.

They had their strength tested at the start and after the sixth training session. The average gain in strength throughout the pool of volunteers was 50%. So far so good! What I didn’t mention was that while each person did their training, someone else sat opposite them just watching their fingers open and close. Sounds a bit daft, I know. But they had their strength tested too.

Incredibly, they were 33% stronger. If you really couldn’t be bothered exercising, you could actually go to the gym and just sit in the café, providing there was a window that you can watch people training through.

At a talk I once gave, there was a woman who just couldn’t accept this. She pointed out that her husband had sat in front of the TV, watching football, almost every evening for the past 20 years.

If what you’re saying was true,” she said, “then my husband would be a great footballer, and as fit and athletic as David Beckham, so I’m sorry, I just don’t buy this as he’s put on about 2 stones in weight around his waist and is definitely not more athletic.”

I said I understood her reasoning but that she kind of gave an answer to her own quandary. I asked, “When he watches the football, does he watch the mechanical movements of the players’ muscles? Or does he watch the ball?”

I then pointed out, “Because if he was watching the ball, and the mirror neuron system really does mirror what you watch, then he’ll look more like a ball. And you just said that he’s put on 2 stones in weight.” That was when a ripple of laughter went round the room.

But all joking aside, mirror neuron research has received a great deal of research dollars over the past few years. In my opinion, one of the most exciting pieces of research has been with Alzheimer’s patients.

Scientists studying Alzheimer’s disease have identified areas that are most susceptible to plaque formation. You could plot them as a little map. But other scientists studying the mirror neuron system have also created a map of the mirror neuron system from studying the brains of people watching simple open and close hand movements.

Amazingly, the maps overlap quite a bit. So some researchers had the novel idea to take the brain to the gym, so to speak, by stimulating the mirror neuron system in Alzheimer’s patients through having them watch simple hand movements. This would, in effect, stimulate the areas of plaque in their brains.

So they worked with a care home containing 44 residents who had the disease and split them into two groups. One group watched 30-minute documentaries five days a week for six weeks and the other group just watched videos of simple hand movements. It doesn’t sound very exciting, especially when the others were watching ‘March of the Penguins’. But when they were all tested after six weeks and again six weeks later, those who watched the hand movements had significantly improved on an attention test and on facial recognition.

Incredibly, taking the brain to the gym, so to speak, was benefitting these patients. As far as I know, this is the only research of its kind.

I’m very hopeful that more research dollars will find their way towards this exciting area of research so that, perhaps, some simple exercises could soon be recognized around the world that can help sufferers of this disease and their families.