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It’s Written All Over You...

Some lies are performed brilliantly. What goes into telling a lie..? The more intelligent a species, the larger the neo-cortex and the better the ability to lie. For obvious reasons, man tops that list (and more technically, women outshine the men). But not everybody can lie with a ‘straight face’. Why..? Is there a force that works against our deceptive words..? If yes, where does this force originate and how does it manifest itself? This article aims to develop a basic understanding of the emotive processes that underlie deceptive speech and how our bodies can sometimes, have a mind of their own.

In the thousands of years that man has walked the earth, there is one thing about us that hasn’t changed: our instinct for self-preservation; an innate desire to save ourselves and keep ourselves at a distance from anything that threatens our existence. An instinct embedded in all living organisms, ours has taken on several forms and doesn’t just come in to play when our physical selves are vulnerable.
It has been a while since we’ve found ourselves running for dear life from felines somewhere in the African wilderness. But that’s not to say modern day society doesn’t host its share of situations held synonymous with wild cats.

There is a part of the human brain that never forgot the self-preservation tactics it strategically developed to help pre-historic man cope with trouble. This part of the brain is one of three parts of what later came to be known as the ‘Triune Brain’ or ‘the three-in-one brain’.  The Triune Brain comprises of the Limbic Brain, the Reptilian Brain and the Neo-cortex (Human Brain).

The human brain is the one that churns out untruths. The Limbic Brain is one that does not think - it just reacts. It is so dead honest that no matter what the human brain comes up with, the limbic brain finds a way to shield itself and you from it. This performance is obviously dependent on the outrageousness of the falsity. Not many of us squirm when we feel the urge to tell someone their (distasteful) new hair-do is exquisite.

Freeze..!

You’ve probably noticed several times how when you’re watching a horror flick, some scenes so petrifying make you tense up. You sit perfectly still almost holding your breath (at least till the bad guy is shot 7 times). You obviously don’t plan to sit that way with every intense scene. This is the Freeze response devised by the limbic brain to make you “inconspicuous to the threat at large”. You’re body senses danger and the first thing it does is tries to make you less of a target by reducing movement and thus reducing your chances of being noticed. Observe how the limbic system kicks in even when deception is not involved; but mere fright.

Apply the above to a scenario where a guilty crime suspect is being questioned. The first thing he might do unconsciously is stop making unnecessary movements while he tries to assess how much the police know about him. It would help if the police could visually pick up when his breathing gets shallow and resumes normalcy.

Taking Flight


This is by far the most interesting and extensive strategy developed by the limbic system. How convenient it would be if we could just literally run away from experiences or people we didn’t like. Sometimes when in a group, you can pick out the people who really don’t want to be there.

The feet being the farthest from the brain are considered to be the most honest; not many of us keep track of what our feet are doing anyway in times of positive excitement or stress. Many a time, your desire to leave a terribly boring meeting might resonate in your feet - one of which could be facing the exit.

The Flight response is more complex than just assessing which way the feet want to run off to. This response takes place in the form of distancing as well. Take a look at this couple. Observe how their bodies are slightly tilted away or disoriented from one another.

When the freeze and flight responses are not viable options or have failed, the Fight response may be resorted to. This does not necessarily mean a physical fight but could be by way of aggression in demeanor, posture or words.

We’re all well-versed with the three wise monkeys. But what do they have to do with us?!
The honest brain (the limbic brain) tends to get scandalized when it hears dishonest words. Almost as though it wants to stop the words from flowing, it quickly makes the speaker cover the source of these scandalous words - the mouth. However, like many obvious actions that can’t be performed so openly by an adult in public, this action is disguised so it can be executed without calling for attention. This is one reason for the very popular nose-rub.

Show a guilty crime suspect evidence of his incriminating text messages and he might want to distance himself or take flight from what he’s being shown. This is what he might look like if he does that. The same is in the case of someone who probably does not want to hear what you are saying or has invalidated what you’re saying.

Finally, following an uncomfortable or threatening situation, the Limbic brain switches to Pacifist mode. This is the time during which the brain helps you soothe yourself. Neck touching, wiping/ stroking sweaty palms along legs while seated, the comforting self-hug are all examples of pacifying behaviors.

In summary, the act of lying is something that puts most people at unease. This unease is exposed by the limbic system through pre-set codes like self-saving freeze, flight or fight gestures. It is to be kept in mind that such gestures are not symbolic of lies, rather merely of the experienced discomfort or anxiety which innocent people may face as well.

While body language is construed widely as casual entertainment; it is based on instinctive mechanisms that we all use. For example, it is the limbic system at work again when you intuitively decide that you like or dislike someone almost at first sight. While this article focuses on discomfort behavior, body language also contributes much to rapport and trust-building; because what we see counts.


Author: Rebecca D'Silva (Goa, India)
LLB, MSc. (Psychology and Investigation) from UK
Micro-Expressions Analyst
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