Lauren Slater and the Science of Lying

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Lauren Slater is by most accounts a practicing psychologist in Boston. It is hard to tell what is real and what is dishonest about an author whose self-described memoir depicts her as an unrepentant liar and schemer. In one of her other books Prozac Diary, Slater describes herself as the victim of seemingly elusive mental illnesses that prompt her to attempt suicide, cutting, and other dramatic means of acting out her pain. Prozac finally rescued her from depression and OCD at age 26. However after Prozac saved her life, it numbed her brain.

In her 2000 book, Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir, Slater describes herself as the childhood victim of a variety of other elusive mental illnesses as well as epilepsy. Two conditions that combined to cause her to become a chronic liar and devoted attention-seeker. Apparently, these many mental illnesses are the excuse Slater gives for being a liar throughout her entire life.

If Lying is taken at face value and is what Slater claims it to be, a memoir, then Slater herself appears to be a rather unsympathetic character. The addition to the title of metaphor could indicate to readers that this is a fancy bit of creative writing or that in fact, the lying part refers to some symbolic comparison between things not readily discernible.

Slater presents the narrative as if she is telling a true story. That technique has been used for years by authors without raising readers and critics’ ire. However, Slater’s memoir received negative and sometimes mixed reviews. Slater claims the basis for her constant lying and childhood attention-seeking behaviors may or may not have to do with her epilepsy. She writes, “I have epilepsy. Or I feel I have epilepsy. Or I wish I had epilepsy, so I could find a way of explaining...there is no epilepsy…” (Slater 5). The reader is left wondering if she does have epilepsy and if that is the reason she is a chronic liar. During the possibly figurative story, Slater’s explains how her parents supposedly sent her to a Catholic school in which the nuns were experts at treating epilepsy. There she learns to fall so that she is not injured during her epileptic seizures. She finds falling a good way to gain attention and adds it to her arsenal of deception. The science of brain studies has often focused on epileptic brains. A fact that, given her education and training, Slater could not avoid knowing about.

During the 1950s William Penfield, MD experimented on epileptics and discovered that when he touched brain parts with electricity the epileptic would shout and sometimes talk about things from their past. This experiment on the part of Penfield was to prove his hypothesis, that memories are stored in specific regions in the brain and that different parts of the brain carry out memory consolidation and other functions (Hermann 7). Over the next three decades, scientists and scholars researched the brain hemispheres.

In 1981, Roger W. Sperry won a Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine "for his discoveries concerning the functional specialization of the cerebral hemispheres" (nobelprize.org). Sperry’s discoveries were also the result of studying the brains of people with epilepsy. Sperry cut into the corpus callosum, “the thick band of nerve fibers that divides the cerebrum into left and right hemispheres” (biology-online.org). The corpus callosum joins the left and right brain hemispheres so that communication occurs. In this way, there is a transmission of the motor, sensory, and cognitive data. After he cut the corpus collosum, some of Sperry’s subjects suffered from side effects such as being incapable of naming things that had been originally identified by the right side of the brain. Sperry concluded that this meant that language skills are a function of the left hemisphere of the brain (Sperry 30-33).

Since Sperry’s and Penfield’s experiments, there has been much research into the left-right brain concept. The hemispheres are not as independent as these researchers assumed. Math skills are at their highest in a person using both sides of their brains. The left hemisphere of the brain stores language skills but the intuition and understanding via context requires the right side of the brain to interpret meaning.

Scientists have studied lying in laboratory experiments and modern conclusions are that it is a two-part activity. A person who lies must 1) construct the lie while simultaneously 2) withholding the truth. Scientific studies in labs find researchers manufacturing a variety of scenarios in which the subject is required to lie. For example, the mock theft scenario has subjects remove two objects from a given location and then hide the objects. Next electrodes are attached to the subject’s scalp in order to monitor electrical activity in the brain. When accused of hiding the objects the subject lies. Then scientists try to determine if a certain portion of the brain is involved in the lie (Dike, Baranoski, and Griffith 345). Apparently not. Most conclusions are that lying is a two-part project that involves a large part of the brain.

Various on MRIs have been used to try to discover locations of lying based on blood flow to the brain. These images are only slightly more efficient in trying to isolate brain action in precise areas during a lie. MRI conclusions are that numerous parts of the brain are included in the act of lying. The best guess is that the vital area involved in lying is the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is part of the frontal lobes and credited with the operation of one’s personality and social behavior (or anti-social behavior in this case). Cognitive processes that allow people to make plans in the future and solve problems occur in the prefrontal cortex so it makes sense that that is the location in which lies are created. Additionally, researchers discovered that the brain requires more juice to lie than it does, to tell the truth. Lying requires additional time as well (Dike, Baranoski, and Griffith 345 -347).

Professors who have studied the brain, morality, and decision-making all conduct such studies. Horton and Wedding have conducted such studies and concluded that while the prefrontal cortex is more engaged during a lie than during the truth it is no more engaged than when the same subject is focused on such tasks as cooking or playing a game (5). Furthermore, they are not sold on the idea that these tests reveal a lying location in the brain. Apparently, there is not readily identifiable lying section of the brain. Rather there are multiple areas involved in lying as there are in other tasks.

Physician and psychiatrist Charles Dike has studies lying and pathology to try to determine if it is an actual disease in and of itself or if it is, as Lauren Slater implies in her book, a symptom of a disease or mental illness. As of his 2005 writings, he concluded that there is no satisfactory conclusion within the psychiatric community about the causes of pathological lying. However, there have been conclusions drawn about the components of pathological lying. Pathological lying is a lifelong habit of sorts, which has no obvious benefit. Regular lying is goal-oriented (Dike 4-5). Based on this information it appears that Slater’s acknowledged life-long habit of lying is a compulsive habit that she has refined over the years because of the success of her lies.

Other studies of lying describe pseudologia fantastica, which according to research experts Healy and Healy is a “falsification entirely disproportionate to any discernible end in view, may be extensive and very complicated, manifesting over a period of years or even a lifetime, in the absence of definite insanity, feeblemindedness or epilepsy”(1969). This type of lying is common in children and adolescents, particularly epileptics, whereby a tendency to tell extravagant and fantastic falsehoods is centered on the storyteller. That child-narrator often comes to believe in and may act on those stories. Again, here is the idea that epilepsy may be a cause of this type of lying (Dike, Baranoski, and Ezra Griffith). Slater does claim to have been quite a liar her whole life and to have suffered from many mental illnesses since childhood. In this way, she fits many of the components of the definition of pseudologia fantastica.

In Lying Slater identifies many episodes of her chronic lying. In "Onset,” she is a child who has childhood temporal lobe epilepsy. This illness causes her much angst and embarrassment. Slater uses her epilepsy from childhood through her teenage years to account for her many fallings and the seeing of auras. By choosing epilepsy as her illness Slater aligns herself with notable brilliant epileptics such as Van Gogh - the genius behind the Starry Night (Kate 2). Eventually, Slater claims that yes, she did have epilepsy and yes, she did lie about having epileptic seizures. This is somewhat believable.

Slater’s book has angered many critics as can be deduced from the extensive reviews. Most seem to be appalled at her misuse of the idea of a memoir. Others are offended about whether or not this book is truly autobiographical. The book is written in a sort of autobiographical way, the easiest form of literature to devise. But it does not really claim to be an autobiography. The fact that Slater turns to her supposed childhood self to tell her story, and that that childhood self is a chronic liar gives the book a sort of Alice in Wonderland quality. Everything is upside down in her world and things that appear real may be fictions. Slater the child holds the reader’s attention much as a liar practiced in the art or illness of pseudologia fantastica could play a roomful of other children and adults. When she was a child, she supposedly stole, dramatized her illness or supposed illness for attention’s sake, and later grew up to be a struggling young woman disfigured in her relationships by epilepsy and maybe by alcoholism.

Slater herself does not mind the ambiguity between fact and fiction, or truth and lies. She does not claim that this book is a historically accurate tale of her life and times. However many of her critics are not comfortable with or happy about the book. Reviewer Julia Galbus writes that while it may be that the casual reader does not mind permitting Slater to replace facts with the metaphor “the book presents a number of avenues for discussing plagiarism, privacy and honesty; the performance and construction of identity; illness and diagnosis” (99-100). Critic Rebecca Mead rants in her review of Lying that it “reeks of a rat” and prompted her to get on the phone right away to do some fact-checking (Cantrell, conference paper).

In the chapter in which Slater discusses marketing strategies for her little book on lying, the author ostensibly sends a memo to Random House defending her choice of literary style. Slater supposedly was trying to convince Random House to classify her book as non-fiction. By the time I read this chapter of the book, I did not believe that it was an actual memo to Random House. I did not even believe that Slater really cared about what genre the book was assigned. It read to me as a joke intended to anger critics and the literary profession in general. Slater refers to Lying as “a book that takes up residence in the murky gap between genres and by its stubborn self-disposition there forces us to consider important things.” Additionally in this section of the book, Slater claims that “gray matter” is lacking in booksellers and advises her agent and editor not to confuse bookstore people who would not be able to figure out where the book belongs anyway. This seems obviously a taunt and an insult to the industry. However, it appears that what Slater wants is the same thing as any child wants: lots of attention be it good or bad.

Acts of lying have been addressed for over 100 years in American medical literature by psychiatrists, medical doctors, and others who seek to understand the workings of the human brain. Additionally, this field is of interest to those in the justice system because it may lead to a better understanding of crime. Attempting to make sense of the vagaries and artifices in Slater’s book about lying is a somewhat interesting exercise in analysis. Additionally, her lack of apology, bold claims, and complex storytelling has enraged some critics adds titillation. Slater is not trying to make a case about whether or not her stories are true. She does not care about controlling her lying or fictions then and now. Hers is not an issue of memory. It is an issue of storytelling and a meander through a life that may or may not have held actual physical torment but definitely has been rift with figurative angst.

Works Cited

Cantrell, Kate (2011) Lying in all honesty: The metaphor hoax in Lauren Slater’s lying. In International Research Society for Children’s Literature Conference 2011, 4 - 8 July 2011, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, QLD. Retrieved from http://eprints.qut.edu.au/50788/

Dike, CC, M Baranoski, and EE Griffith. "Pathological Lying Revisited.” The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. 33.3 (2005): 342-9. Print.

Galbus, Julia. "[review Of] Lying: a Metaphorical Memoir.” Modern Language Studies. 33 (2003): 99-102. Print.

Healy W, Healy MT: “Pathological lying, accusation and swindling” in Patterson Smith Reprints Series in Criminology, Law Enforcement, and Social Problems. Edited by Gault RH, Crossley FB, Garner JW. Montclair, NJ: Patterson Smith, 1969.

Herrmann, Douglas J. Super Memory: A Quick-Action Program for Memory Improvement. New York: Wings Books, 1992. Print.

Horton, Arthur M. N, and Danny Wedding. The Neuropsychology Handbook. New York: Springer Pub, 2008. Print.

Slater, Lauren. Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir. New York: Random House, 2000. Print.

Sperry, Roger W. "Left-brain, Right-Brain.” Saturday Review (New York 1975). 2.23 (1975): 30-3. Print.