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. 

Does this look like a 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.

TIP: Since only comments from registered users will be tabulated, if your user name appears in red above your comment—STOP—go log in, then try commenting again. If your user name appears in black above your comment, You’re In!

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.


  1. MaryC

    Enjoyed reading about your research.

  2. David Thornock

    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!

  3. John Smith

    Sounds like my neurons are in trouble!

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    Intriguing. Would love to read this.

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    sounds cool.

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    You have my attention!

  14. L

    Want to read this book!

  15. Deb Philippon

    It’s fascinating the way memory works. Our attempts to create our own reality. Wish me luck!

  16. Eva Daniell

    It is so interesting all the research that goes into writing a great book. I can not wait to read it

  17. Gwen Ellington

    The psychological aspects sound very fascinating to me!

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    Sounds like a fascinating read!

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    Can’t wait to read this book – excerpt was a great intro.

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    Fascinating premise!

  22. Blue Eyes

    Enjoyed reading about all of your research. Can’t wait to read your book.

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  26. Jean Feingold

    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.

  27. Jean Feingold

    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.

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    I would love to read the book.

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    Fascinating basis for a story, and sounds like an exciting one.

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    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.

  31. Elizabeth

    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.

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  48. K.M. Martin

    It will be interesting to see how you tie memory in with lying in your book.

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    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.

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    Lies are emotional events; I think that is why you remember incidents when you told one.

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Comments are closed.