Aug 31 2017 3:00pm

Liar, Liar, Neurons Fire: Lying and the Development of Memory

Read this exclusive guest post about lies and memory formation from author Cate Holahan, then make sure you're signed in and comment below for a chance to win her latest thriller, Lies She Told!

My first clear memory is of a lie.

Closing my eyes, I see a backyard. Hot and buggy. Ants stumble across papers laid atop a wooden table. The most unfortunate stick in gloppy paints the color of liquefied lollipops, passionately smeared by my chubby toddler fingers. I am drawing a palm tree. It resembles a ripped beach umbrella. I can do better.

My mother calls me inside through the windows of the screened porch. She can’t come out and leave my infant brother.

I grab a fresh paper and dip my green finger back into the paint.

“No. Now.” Her voice is serious and tired. Its tone tends to precede swats on my backside. 

I agree and watch her shape retreat from the windows. Then, I paint my palm tree. 

The finished picture is my best work of the day. As I rinse my hands in the trickling hose, I think of tacking it to the center of the fridge with the banana and strawberry magnets. And then I think of the trouble I’ll be in for disobeying.

“Your lunch is getting cold.” Again, my mother shouts from the house. “Did you paint another one?”

“NO.” The word slips out. I freeze, waiting for some heavenly voice to testify against me. 

“Ok, well come on in.”

The painting is no longer a masterpiece. It’s evidence. I need to hide it. 

I pick it up, still wet, and hold it to the side of my itchy, smocked dress. Then, I run into the house, through the kitchen, and up to my room. The painting goes behind the bookcase. 

My mother never found it, to my knowledge. And, after a tense week, I forgot about it. But I did not forget about lying—or getting away with it. 

The fact that this transgression is still so vivid in my mind 33 years later has made me wonder about the nature of memory and lying. Why are some experiences burned into the highlight reel of our past when others fade away? How much control do we have about what we remember? How much of it is even true? 

These questions are at the heart of my upcoming book, Lies She Told, which will be published by Crooked Lane Books on September 12. 

Protagonist Liza Cole is a writer whose work-in-progress thriller provides clues to a disappearance in her real life. A once bestselling author whose career has faltered since her blockbuster debut, Liza has thirty days to finish a draft of her book about Beth, a new mom who discovers her husband cheating. Liza’s tight deadline is further complicated by experimental fertility treatments and a distracted husband that is struggling to keep his firm afloat after the unexplained vanishing of his law partner and close friend, Nick.

Chapters alternate between Liza and Beth’s stories. When the paramour is murdered in Beth’s tale and Nick’s body is found similarly mutilated, Liza begins to question whether she knows more about Nick’s murder than she realizes. Is her subconscious picking up on clues to Nick’s disappearance, or is it all coincidence? And who can she trust when she doubts even her own conscious perceptions?

As part of my research for the book, I read articles from Psychology Today and other publications about how memory works. One of the things I learned is that we are wired to remember moderately stressful and emotional experiences better than everything else. 

According to the book Neural Plasticity and Memory: From Genes to Brain Imaging (CRC PRESS, 2007), memories are often cemented when an experience involves the production of a moderate amount of stress hormones as well as an aroused emotional response. When animals and people are injected with significant doses of epinephrine, aka adrenaline, during or right after an experience, they tend to remember it in detail. However, when they are injected with the same hormone hours after an event, they don’t recall it as well. Similarly, when they are injected with small doses of epinephrine, they don’t see much of a memory impact. In fact, they may even remember it less well than they would have otherwise. This suggests that the important thing for memory is the production of a moderate amount of stress hormones during the experience. 

In a Darwinian way, the findings make sense. A person or animal that remembers details about stepping on a snake pit is less likely to accidentally step on anything that looks like a snake pit again. As a result, that person or animal is more likely to continue living and procreating than the individual who can’t seem to recall what the snake pit looked like despite nearly dying the first time. 

The authors also found that for a memory to end up in long-term storage, there needs to be an engagement of the amygdala—aka the brain’s fear center (though it deals with a variety of strong emotions). The combination of stress hormones plus amygdala stimulation, apparently, equals a lasting experience.

Anecdotally, these findings probably jive with most of our memories. We recall things that frightened us or made us especially sad or nervous better than what we had for dinner a few days ago (unless it was a particularly emotional meal).

But there’s a catch to this rule of stress and memory. Acute stress and long-term exposure to fearful situations actually kill neurons in the hippocampus, the part of our brain used for memory storage, according to studies by scientists at the University of California, Irvine. 

The forgetting aspect of acute stress is particularly prominent with developing brains, say neuroscientists at the University of California, Berkeley. Prolonged acute stress early on can create a brain that is particularly vulnerable to mental disease, according to the researchers. Child abuse was shown to shrink the hippocampus in a study of nearly 200 adults in the Boston area by a Duke University researcher, leading to a higher incidence of mental disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and severe memory problems. 

Large sustained doses of stress hormones aren’t the only hormones that impair memory. High levels of sex-related hormones, present in pregnant women and those undergoing fertility treatments, are also associated with memory decline and reduced cognitive function. 

How I use all this information in the book is part of the mystery. But if you read Lies She Told, you won’t forget it anytime soon. 

Comment below for a chance to win a copy of Lies She Told by Cate Holahan!

To enter, make sure you're a registered member of the site and simply leave a comment below.

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Lies She Told Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at beginning at 3:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) August 31, 2017. Sweepstakes ends 2:59 p.m. ET September 12, 2017. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.


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Cate Holahan is the acclaimed author of Lies She Told (Sept. 2017), The Widower's Wife (August 2016), and Dark Turns (November 2015), all published by Crooked Lane Books. The Widower’s Wife was named to Kirkus’ Best Books of 2016. An award-winning journalist and former television producer, her articles have appeared in BusinessWeek, The Boston Globe, The Record and on many websites. She graduated from Princeton University, sang in an original rock band for years, and has a pet pig named Westley. In the spirit of Lies She Told, one of the aforementioned biographical items is not, strictly, true.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
1. maryc
Enjoyed reading about your research.
David Thornock
2. dmthornock
Very interesting premise for a book, and certainly interesting research. I am in the same boats Cate Holahan in that some of my most clear memories of life are moments tied to lies or deception. Now I'm wondering again just what that says about me. Yikes!
This is a book that just jumped to the top of books I can't wait to read. Sounds fantastic!
4. Jackie Mungle
I have been dying to win this book to read.
Jackie Mungle
5. jackielou
is waiting to read this book, maybe i'll win it.
Deb Philippon
13. DebP
It's fascinating the way memory works. Our attempts to create our own reality. Wish me luck!
Eva Daniell
14. wildflower00
It is so interesting all the research that goes into writing a great book. I can not wait to read it
Gwen Ellington
15. mamadonie02
The psychological aspects sound very fascinating to me!
Joanne Mielczarski
17. jtmswim
Can't wait to read this book - excerpt was a great intro.
20. Blue Eyes
Enjoyed reading about all of your research. Can't wait to read your book.
Janice Santillo
22. themommazie
I've heard that this is a good book. The exerpt confirms it. Would love to win.
23. Jill Price
Cant wait to read it!!
Jean Feingold
24. dusksunset
I've heard small children remember things in the way that is most favorable to them - even if untrue - and don't realize they are lying.
Jean Feingold
25. dusksunset
I've heard small children remember things in the way that is most favorable to them - even if untrue - and don't realize they are lying.
Richard Derus
27. expendablemudge
Fascinating basis for a story, and sounds like an exciting one.
Lori Provenzano
28. Mountainesque
Having encountered a chronic, habitual liar as a schoolmate early on, I've had a lifelong interest in the causes, detection, and consequences of lies. Interesting book? Very.
Elizabeth Vollbach
29. techeditor
The brain and memory interest me. I was in a severe car accident many years ago and was in a coma for two months. To this day, I don't remember the accident or several days before the accident. That can be attributed to the head injury. But I also don't remember several things that happened during the two following years. Maybe much of that was due to stress.
Joy Isley
31. JOYE
Interesting premise for a book. Can't wait to read this one
Vernon Luckert
33. vl4095
Very interesting premise - would love to win this book
Michael Carter
34. rubydog
Please enter me in this sweepstakes.
Sally Schmidt
35. bigcootie
This one has definitely gone on my TBR! Thanks for the chance to win.
Pearl Berger
40. Sunshine
Riveting novel which I would enjoy. Thanks.
L Peters
41. leepcat
Thanks for the chance to win such an interesting-looking book. Can't wait to read it.
L Peters
42. leepcat
Thanks for the chance to win such an interesting-looking book. Can't wait to read it.
Anita Nowak
43. sirdustin
This sounds like a good mystery that I would love to read
Anita Nowak
44. sirdustin
This sounds like a good mystery that I would love to read
45. Carl Scott
Thanks for the anecdote and the interesting piece on memory and stress. I'd very much like to win a copy of the book, please enter my name in the draw. Thanks
46. K.M. Martin
It will be interesting to see how you tie memory in with lying in your book.
susan beamon
47. susanbeamon
Memories fade. Memories lie. Memories get together and mix their parts. Memory can not be trusted. Memories are all we have to prove who we are.
Chris Noe
48. ezmerelda
It's always fun to find something different. This sounds like a really good read.
Jean Graham
51. Jeano
Wow! What a concept! I am intrigued and would love to read this book.
Laurent Latulippe
54. krag48
Very interesting. I want to check this out.
55. Donna Mae
I would very much like to read this book. It's a very interesting book.
Etta Wagner
57. wagneretta
Lies are emotional events; I think that is why you remember incidents when you told one.
60. Jamie Whitten McCauley
Thank you for this opportunity
Jackie Wisherd
62. JackieW
Interesting subject for this book. I would like to read it.
Andrea Wengert
65. heyitsandrea
Thank you for a chance to win! Looking forward to reading this book!
Anita Yancey
66. rosewood780
I have been wanting to read this book. It sounds really amazing.
Anita Yancey
67. rosewood780
I have been wanting to read this book. It sounds really amazing.
Margaret Faria
68. Fargrit
Really interesting research. Look forward to reading it.
69. John Meixner
Looking forward to this book
70. Leinda Peterman
I'm very interested in this book. I would love to win it!
Melissa Keith
76. melly801
My Amazon list is filled with new thrillers and this is one of them. I want it now (so said Veruca Salt) and that's no LIE!!
77. Lynda Schoenfelder
I have never read anything by this author before. Would love to win!
Angie Stormer
78. ReadaholicZone
I so badly want to read this thriller. I thank you for the giveaway. If it was not for my RA I would cross my fingers!
79. Polly Barlow
Can our memories of our childhood be lies? I wonder if young children recognize that something they are telling is a lie or not.
This thriller sounds like an interesting read or is the entire tale a lie!
Sandy Klocinski
83. attea2d
Interesting research. Lies are also involved in some of my clearest memories. Good luck to all!
84. Shannon Baas
I would like this.
Lisa Craven
90. mistyfuji
Looks like an awesome thriller and I'd love to read it. Thanks!
Lisa Craven
90. mistyfuji
Looks like an awesome thriller and I'd love to read it. Thanks!
97. Trisha McKee
This is definitely a read I would enjoy!
99. Leela
Thanks for the giveaway!
Jerry Marquardt
100. versatileer
I would love to thank you so much for featuring this fine giveaway. I look forward to following you in the future.
106. michelle garrity
sounds intruiging! would love to win!
108. Stephanie Liske
Thank you.
Linda Peters
110. linnett
sounds like another great read, thanks
Heaven Kelough
111. justbeingheavenly
Looks like a really great, interesting read! Thank you so much for the chance to win!
donna graham
112. jegrdo
Would love to win this book. It sounds very interesting.
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