Here's How to Catch a Liar, If You Really Want To

Paul Ekman: There’s no question from public opinion polls that people care a lot about the honesty of the person they’re dealing with, whether that’s their doctor or their political leader.  And yet it’s more complex than that.  Often we don’t want to know the truth.

Do you want to find out that your spouse is cheating on you?  Do you want to find out the person that you recommended for a job in your company is embezzling?  Do you want to find out that your kids are using heroin?  These of course are all things that you want to know but you certainly don’t want to know.

So it’s very complex as to whether or not we really want to catch a liar.  We think we do.  What if we find out that both of our presidential candidates are lying?  Then what do we do?  I’m not saying they are; I never comment on anyone in office or running for office.  Only after they’re out that they’re fair game. . . . Clinton said, “I didn’t have sex with that woman”  and then gave her name.  "That woman" is putting her at a distance from himself.

Now there are many reasons why people lie and some are honorable.  I study the lies that society cares about, cares about catching, generally disapproves of.  The most common reason why people lie is to avoid punishment for breaking a rule.  Usually some rules are broken accidentally.  You walk down the hallway too fast and you knock over a $2,000 jar that’s on the stand.  You didn’t mean to do that.  “Did you knock over that jar?”  Well, you’re not going to – “Yes, I did. . . .”  “No, I don’t know who knocked over that jar.  It wasn’t knocked over when I walked by.”  You don’t want to get punished.  But there are many times where we make the decision – I’m going to break a rule, I’m going to cheat, and I’m going to lie about it.  I’m not going to admit that I cheated; I don’t want to get caught.  So the decision to lie is made at the same time as the decision to cheat.

When we teach people, and we do in workshops teach people how to catch liars, it takes us 32 hours. . . . Spotting a micro expression is the single most useful thing.  This is an expression that lasts about a 25th of a second.  We’ve tested over 15,000 people in all walks of life and over 99 percent of them don’t see them, and yet with an hour’s training on the Internet they can learn to see them.  

However, that may only tell you that the person’s concealing an emotion.  That’s a lie -- they’re not telling you how they really feel.  But it may not tell you that they’re the perpetrator of a crime.  It’s a terrible example, but I have to use it – my wife is found dead.  I will be the first suspect because, regrettably, the person most likely to kill their wife is the husband. . . . “But I love my wife! I didn’t kill her.  The police are wasting their time and they’re insulting me!  Time is going by and they’re not looking for the real person.”  I could be furious at them and concealing my anger.  And so if you spot my concealed anger, it doesn’t mean I killed my wife.  It only means that I’m concealing my anger.  Now if a lie is about how do you really feel, Paul, and you spot a micro expression, then you’ve got it.

Second, realize that only the gestures of your cultural group are you going to recognize.  That’s body specific language, but you already know them.  You can’t – if I asked you how many gestures are used in America today, you’d give me about 12, but there are actually 80.  And if I showed you every one of those 80, you’d know what they mean.

Now the one that amazingly enough has had an enormous payoff is one of the most common ones we use, which is the headshake, yes and no.  I just did this.  This is actually “yes” and this is “no.”  But it occurs in a micro fashion.  So I worked on the case of an embezzler who had embezzled over $100 million.  He was really big time until Bernie Madoff came along.  This embezzler had accused people in a number of banks of being in on the deal, which meant those banks would be vulnerable to having to pay for the embezzlement.  And when one of the people who he falsely accused, he is asked, “Did she help you steal the money?”  He said, “Yes.  Absolutely, she did.”  Doing a slight headshake, no.  Even tinier than mine.

So there’s a gesture one.  There’s a face one.  

Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd

It’s very complex as to whether or not we really want to catch a liar. We think we do. What if we find out that both of our presidential candidates are lying? Then what do we do? I’m not saying they are; I never comment on anyone in office or running for office. Only after they’re out that they’re fair game. . . . Clinton said, "I didn’t have sex with that woman" and then gave her name. "That woman" is putting her at a distance from himself.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

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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