Do Liars Make Better Artists?

“Oh! what a tangled web we weave,” Sir Walter Scott wrote in his 1808 epic poem Marmion, “When first we practice to deceive!” But what a pretty web it might be, researchers might add today. The idea that being a good liar helps one be a better actor, novelist, or painter isn’t a new one, but a group of business school professors recently put the idea to an empirical test and came up with some interesting conclusions about the connection between deceit and creativity. Not only might artists be better at lying, cheating, and general rule breaking, but it’s also possible that such behaviors might actually add to one’s creativity. At the risk of plunging the art world and the world in general into chaos, can we ignore the question of whether liars make better artists?


In the February 18, 2014 issue of Psychological Science, Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino and University of Southern California business school professor Scott S. Wiltermuth published their article titled “Evil Genius? How Dishonesty Can Lead to Greater Creativity.” You can click on the link to read the full details of their experiments, but they basically tested how people put in situations involving deceit or rule breaking were then able to perform creative tasks. “We propose that dishonest and creative behavior have something in common: They both involve breaking rules,” Gino and Wiltermuth write. “Because of this shared feature, creativity may lead to dishonesty (as shown in prior work), and dishonesty may lead to creativity (the hypothesis we tested in this research).” They performed five experiments to analyze the issue from every angle. In experiment 1, even after “account[ing] for individual differences in their creative ability,” subjects “who cheated were subsequently more creative than noncheaters.” Even after randomizing in experiments 2 and 3, the results suggest that “acting dishonestly leads to greater creativity in subsequent tasks.” Finally, after mediating (experiment 4) and moderating (experiment 5) the possibility of a lying—creativity connection, they found that “[t]he link between dishonesty and creativity is explained by a heightened feeling of being unconstrained by rules.” Playing the rebel by breaking the rules thus frees us to be more creative in other ways, such as the arts.

But did Cezanne need to knock over a bank before painting his Post-Impressionist Mont Sainte-Victoire? There’s a long tradition of creative artists as rule-breaking threats to society. Nineteenth century novelists such as Nathaniel Hawthorne felt impelled to include faux claims to realism such as the “Custom House” prelude to The Scarlet Letter to assuage puritan fears over writing and reading about sin in a fictional way. Even in the early 20th century, silent film actors such as Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Clara Bow fanned the flames of outrage over the morality of the movies with their on- and off-screen behavior. Even during the Italian Renaissance, rogues such as Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio seemed to know too much about the underhanded acts going on in works such as his 1594 painting Cardsharps (shown above), in which a young mark on the left is being cheated by an older man peeking over his shoulder and signaling to his young apprentice on the right, who has extra cards tucked into his belt as well as a dagger just in case they’re found out. Rumors that Caravaggio used beautiful prostitutes to pose as the Madonnas for his church commissions swirled about even before the artist ran into the legal problems created by his quick temper and quicker reflex to reach for his sword. The list of bad boy and bad girl artists stretches well into our century and will undoubtedly continue well into the future.

But is this connection between creativity and confidence men a totally bad thing? Gino and Wiltermuth freely admit from their business world perspective that “[t]here is little doubt that dishonesty creates costs for society”and that “[i] t is less clear whether it produces any positive consequences.” However, if, as they suggest, “people may become more creative after behaving dishonestly because acting dishonestly leaves them feeling less constrained by rules,” perhaps there’s a way of channeling that rebellious impulse into more constructive than destructive ways.  Maybe our “Bernie MadoffLance Armstrong—insert name of politician here” present full of lies and cheaters is even perverse proof of Gino and Wiltermuth’s findings. “More speculatively,” they write, “our research raises the possibility that one of the reasons why dishonesty is so widespread in today’s society is that by acting dishonestly, people become more creative, which allows them to come up with more creative justifications for their immoral behavior and therefore makes them more likely to behave dishonestly (Gino & Ariely, 2012), which may make them more creative, and so on.” In other words, when people break the rules, it makes them more creative, which then helps them find more creative ways to break more rules.

At its worst, this idea ends with humanity in a creativity-fueled downward spiral into a chaos in which cheaters prosper more and more often because they learn how to prosper even more creatively. At its best, however, this idea offers promise in that, if we can identify the best rule breakers, we can channel their creative energy (and find some creative energy for ourselves) by steering them towards art that breaks the rules that keep us apart (sexual, racial, etc.) rather than art that breaks the rules that hold us together.

[Image: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. Cardsharps, 1594. Image source.]

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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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