Editor's Note, this story will appear in the February/March 2009 issue of Scientific American MIND and has been made available early due to tonight's series premiere of Lie To Me.
Lie to Me
FOX, Wednesdays at 9 P.M. EST
“If you see this microexpression in your spouse’s face, your marriage is coming to an end,” announces Dr. Cal Lightman to a room full of skeptical FBI agents as they watch a recording of a neo-Nazi skinhead accused of planning arson. Lightman, played by Tim Roth in the new TV series Lie to Me, has seen something in the convict’s face the rest of us might miss, a snarl that flashes by in a split second, called a microexpression. When he freezes the video, the agents and the television audience can recognize the fleeting grimace of anger and scorn.
Lightman’s abilities to read faces and solve crimes are based on the real-life work of the field’s pioneer, psychologist Paul Ekman, professor emeritus at the University of California, San Francisco. “The big difference between us is that he’s pretty cocky, and I’m not,” Ekman says. “Lightman tells people what he sees even when he hasn’t been asked. I wouldn’t want him as my friend.” But if Ekman’s skills are as impressive as his alter ego’s, he has every right to boast. According to Ekman, his research techniques can detect lies in real life situations better than polygraph tests can. On the show, not only can Lightman tell when someone is fibbing, he can determine why.
As Lie to Me’s scientific adviser, Ekman comments on each script. He says he is pleased with the evidence-based story lines, such as when images flash on-screen of Saddam Hussein, Bill Clinton, former New York governor Eliot Spitzer and other recognizable mugs caught in compromising contortions. For the rest of us, the series provides lessons seamlessly written into each plot on how to tell if someone is prevaricating. “Some of these clues you can learn easily,” Ekman promises. “You’ll see it on the show once and you’ll never miss it again.”
Every week he will blog at www.fox.com/lietome about the science behind each episode, such as how experts read the emotions underlying arched eyebrows and dilated pupils. Close-up shots of expressions, such as that of an accused teen as he breaks eye contact to honestly recall events, give the audience an eerie insight into what experts such as Ekman catch us doing all the time. As Lightman says, “The truth is written on all our faces.”
MORE THAN IQ
What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought
by Keith E. Stanovich. Yale University Press, 2009 ($30)
Clumsy speech, immense overconfidence, heavy reliance on intuition rather than factual evidence: many people associate these attributes with George W. Bush, and some believe, based on these traits, that the former president is a man of inferior intelligence. That is why so many people were stunned when, during the 2004 presidential campaign, Bush’s IQ score was estimated to be 120—well above average and about the same as that of his opponent John Kerry. Psychologist Keith Stanovich of the University of Toronto, however, was not surprised at all by Bush’s IQ. In his new book he explains why.
Stanovich is convinced that intelligence is different from the ability to make rational decisions and that the two traits do not always coexist. IQ tests measure only part of our cognitive qualities, he argues, and critical thinking is not included. As a result “some people can have very high IQs but be remarkably weak when it comes to the ability to think rationally,” he writes. Yet our society is “fixated on assessing intelligence” and completely ignores rationality. Parents and teachers place great emphasis on trying to raise more intelligent children, but teaching kids to become rational human beings receives much less attention—even though critical thinking would be easy to teach, Stanovich says. This oversight is a serious problem because “societal consequences of irrational thinking are profound,” Stanovich adds. For example, jurors have admitted to having made their decisions based on astrology, and Americans waste billions of dollars a year on quack medical remedies.
In What Intelligence Tests Miss, Stanovich shows that we have enough knowledge and the right tests to assess rationality as systematically as we determine IQ. So why aren’t we doing it? He thinks the reason is a “historical accident.” Because we had measures of intelligence first, IQ tests became ubiquitous early on and have pushed any interest in other cognitive abilities out of our minds ever since.
Stanovich makes a compelling argument that we need to put more emphasis on measuring and teaching critical thinking skills. His clear writing and his many interesting examples make the book accessible and engaging. What Intelligence Tests Miss illuminates the actions of everyone who affects our lives, from our family members to our co-workers to former president Bush.
Made for Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond
by Meg Daley Olmert. Da Capo Press, 2009 ($26)
In 1980 Brooklyn College health scientist Erika Friedmann designed a survey to assess how social support affects survival after a heart attack. Just for fun, she threw in a question about pet ownership. When she analyzed her results months later, she was startled to find that pets—more than support from family and friends—kept people alive. Patients who owned pets were 22 percent more likely to be alive a year after their heart attack than those who did not.
No one knew at the time why pets were such excellent “medicine.” But in the decades since, research has revealed that animals and people sharea special bond that is based not only on emotions but also on biology—and that relationships with animals keep us healthier and happier. As Meg Daley Olmert writes in her heartwarming and fascinating book Made for Each Other, the human-animal bond, which developed over the course of several millennia, shaped our evolution and that of the animals we love.
About 100,000 years ago, the theory goes, an ice age forced our herbivore hominid ancestors to expand their diet to include meat. Those who had the courage to draw near to the animals they feared probably had some help from oxytocin, a hormone that Olmert argues is key to the animal-human bond. Oxytocin—best known as the hormone that facilitates the mother-child bond—is also important for overcoming fear. The first hominids to approach animals most likely had higher-than-normal levels of oxytocin in their brains. And oxytocin has other effects: it promotes social bonding, reduces stress levels, increases antioxidant production and promotes happiness. So when oxy-tocin-rich hominids started focusing on animals, even though their intention was to hunt them, they probably also started bonding with them. This emotional connection then released more oxytocin, building a self-propagating cycle.
Over the course of the next 100,000 years, human-animal relationships solidified. According to Olmert, women occasionally breast-fed wolf pups and children sometimes suckled milk from cows’ udders. This bond started influencing the evolution of both humans and animals as we lived together and learned from one another. The surges of oxytocin our ancestors enjoyed also kept them healthy and happy. We needed animals, and they needed us.
Today in our urban and technological culture, we have only the faintest memories of these incredible ties. But our continued love for pets is evidence that we have not forgotten entirely. Still, only 63 percent of Americans own pets. As a population, we may not be getting the same oxytocin doses we used to, which could have negative effects on our well-being. Olmert makes a convincing case that we are better off with them in our lives.
“Clinically speaking, animals are a homeostatic necessity,” she writes. “Like breathing, they can only be denied for so long.”
Waltz with Bashir
Sony Pictures Classics, 2008
If our brain has built-in mechanisms to block out traumatic memories and if memories are the source of our personalities, then what role do traumatic events play in shaping who we are? That question, along with many others about the nature of memory and personality, underpins the new animated documentary Waltz with Bashir.
The movie details Israeli director Ari Folman’s quest to unlock memories of his involvement in the massacre of Palestinian civilians during the Lebanese Civil War. After Folman undergoes his first flashback to the war, he contacts a psychiatrist friend to help him determine if his flashback represents a real event or a manufactured memory created by Folman’s subconscious.
Folman’s choice to use animation rather than live action for this autobiographical work may strike documentary buffs as odd at first, but it ends up serving his subject matter well. A live-action movie might have struggled to represent Folman’s intangible psychological experiences visually, whereas animation allows Waltz with Bashir to communicate the experience of vivid flashbacks, falsified memories and the alienation induced by post-traumatic stress disorder. The movie mixes recreations of actual events with impressionistic fantasy sequences and interviews with Folman’s friends, comrades and psychiatrists.
At the movie’s U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival, Folman said he was inspired by research that described a repressed memory as a nut in a shell. Although other memories fade over time, the repressed memories remain fresh but inaccessible within their casing. Folman made Waltz with Bashir for the specific purpose of cracking that shell, exhuming those memories and exploring his subconscious to find out who he really is. In doing so, he created a rare glimpse into the psychological effects of war.
Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "Reviews and Recommendations."