Richard Gunderman at The Conversation: our ability to lie shows that the mind is physically independent of the brain (!)

December 27, 2016 • 9:00 am

UPDATE: As the first comment in the thread (by Coel) shows, I was correct in assuming there’s a religiosity to Gunderman’s argument: he’s a trustee of the Christian Theological Seminary. Further, someone who once knew him emailed me and described him as “ultra religious.”


The motto of the site The Conversation is “academic rigor, journalistic flair”, and it’s funded by an impressive roster of organizations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (see bottom for the list). But there’s neither rigor nor flair in a recent article by Dr. Richard Gunderman, “Why you shouldn’t blame lying on the brain“. (According to his bio at the Radiological Society of America, Gunderman is “a professor and vice chairman of the department of radiology at Indiana University, with faculty positions in pediatrics, medical education, philosophy, philanthropy, and liberal arts.” He’s also written both technical books on his field and popular books like We Make a Life by What We Give.) 

Gunderman’s point, which completely baffles me, is that our ability to lie proves that we can actually override the material processes in our brain, and that “the human mind is not bound by the physical laws that scientists see at work in the brain.” In other words, lying proves that there’s a ghost in the machine—a non-physical aspect to our brains and behavior that gives us a form of dualistic free will.

Gunderman begins by noting that functional MRI (fMRI) scans of the brain have shown that lying can be detected by a decrease of activity of the amygdala, which to Gunderman suggests that “subjects may become desensitized to lying, thereby paving the way for future dishonesty.” I haven’t read the studies, so I have no idea whether that last conclusion has any support.

But Gunderman wants to dispel the notion that because lying can be seen as changes in brain activity, it must therefore be a product of the neurological/biochemical processes of brain activity. One section of his piece, called “brain not simply a machine,” argues that because the brain is complicated (with 100 billion neurons and 150 trillion synapses), and because it actually experiences the world through consciousness and emotionality, we can never find a physical basis for those things. Ergo, the brain isn’t a machine!. Gunderman:

As Nobel laureate Charles Sherrington, one of the founders of modern neuroscience, famously declared, natural sciences such as physics and chemistry may bring us tantalizingly close to threshold of thought, but it is precisely at this point that they “bid us ‘goodbye.‘” The language of natural science is inadequate to account for human experience, including the experience of telling a lie.

Consider Mozart’s “A Little Serenade” or Rembrandt’s self-portraits. We can describe the former as horsehair rubbing across catgut, and we may account for the latter as nothing more than pigments applied to canvas, but in each case something vital is lost. As any reader of Shakespeare knows, a lie is something far richer than any pattern of brain activation.

This is a misguided argument, because you can’t describe the effects of Mozart as horsehair on catgut, and no scientists claims such a thing. The sounds have an emotional resonance in our brain after they enter it through our ears. That emotional resonance, of which we’re conscious, depends on our genes and environment: the factors that have built our brain. Just because we don’t understand how it all works manifestly does not say that the brain isn’t a machine. It’s simply a machine whose workings we don’t fully understand.

Gunderson then makes a weird argument about why the brain is “not the mind” (well, the mind is really a product of the brain, just as a knee-jerk reflex is, but never mind). While admitting that we can change how the mind works by physical intervention, he still claims that there is a dualism in our thoughts not explicable by our brains:

A second dangerous misinterpretation that often arises from such reports is the notion that brain and mind are equivalent. To be sure, altering the chemistry and electrical activity of the brain can powerfully affect a person’s sensation, thought, and action – witness the occasionally remarkable effects of psychoactive drugs and electro-convulsive therapy.

But in much of human experience, the causal pathway works in the opposite direction, not from brain to mind, but mind to brain. We need look no further than the human imagination, from which all great works of art, literature and even natural science flow, to appreciate that something far more complex than altered synaptic chemistry is at work in choices about whether to be truthful.

What is the “mind” that is not part of the brain, then? Is it a soul or something not embodied in physical matter? As Mencken said of Thorstein Veblen, “What is the sweating professor trying to say?” Just because art springs from the imagination and perception (and one’s experiences) does NOT mean that all those things are not coded in the brain. In fact, you can efface many aspects of perception and imagination by destroying parts of the brain. Gunderson’s claim that works of art must reflect something more than synaptic chemistry is an unsupported assertion; in fact, the data so far show that he’s wrong. He really needs to specify exactly how he think the mind is independent of the brain; I’m puzzled that a doctor (unless he’s religious) can even make such a claim. If the mind is disconnected from the brain, how does imagination get from the mind to the brain? Is there a soul above it all?

But the most bizarre part of Gunderman’s article is that he sees lying as proof that the mind is independent of the brain:

In fact, our capacity to lie is one of the most powerful demonstrations of the fact that the human mind is not bound by the physical laws that scientists see at work in the brain. As Jonathan Swift puts it “Gulliver’s Travels,” to lie is “to say the thing which is not,” perhaps as profound a testimony as we could wish for free will and the ability of the human mind to transcend physical laws

In the Genesis creation story, it is after woman and man have tasted the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and hidden their nakedness that God declares that “they have become like us.” To be able to lie is in a sense divine, implying a capacity to imagine reality as it is not yet. If used appropriately, this capacity can make the world a better place.

What is going on here, I think, is that Gunderson (whose quotes from scripture imply he’s religious, which may explain his dualism) is espousing a form of “free won’t.” That is, while our positive, truthful statements may reflect the activity of our brain, the fact that we can tell untruths somehow means that the Ghost in the Machine is overriding what we’d normally do. (Benjamin Libet, who did the first experiments showing that decisions can be predicted in the brain before they come to consciousness, didn’t believe in free will per se but did in “free won’t”: the idea that we can decide to change our minds by overriding a conscious decision.)

But this shows nothing of the sort. The decision about whether to be truthful is simply built into our neurons, and often as an adaptive mechanism (By “adaptive,” I mean something that we think will be good for us, not necessarily something that’s evolved—though I think Robert Trivers is right that a certain amount of deceit and self-deception are evolutionary adaptations.) When someone says, “Do I look too fat in these clothes?”, it’s to your benefit to say “no”. That can be a lie, but why on Earth does it show that that decision about how to answer is independent of the physics of our brain? If you say “yes,” is that just the product of our brain-machine?

Gunderman steps further into this argument—one that any sensible person can see through—at the end of his piece, when he simply makes his flat assertion again:

In reality, of course, lying is not the fault of the brain but the person to whom the brain belongs. When someone tells a lie, he or she is not merely incorrect but deceptive. People who lie are deliberately distorting the truth and misleading someone in hopes of gain, placing their purposes above the understanding and trust of the person to whom they lie.

Of course many of our truthful statements are made in hopes of gain, placing our own purposes above those of others.. So how does the fact that we sometimes use deception prove dualism? Gunderman goes on (my emphasis):

Even in the era of functional neuro-imaging, there is no lie detector that can tell with certainty whether subjects are telling the truth. There is no truth serum that can force them to do so. At the core of every utterance is an act of moral discernment that we cannot entirely account for except to say that it reflects the character of the person who does it.

Lying is not a matter of physical law, but of moral injunction. It is less about chemistry than character. It reflects not merely what we regard as expedient in the moment but who we are at our core. Ironically, while it is less momentous to act well than to be good, we are in the end little more than the sum of all the moral compromises we have made or refused to make.

This is why we abhor the deceptive conduct of narcissists, crooks and politicians, and why we esteem so highly the characters of people who manage to tell the truth even when it is especially inconvenient to do so. Such acts are morally blameworthy or exemplary precisely because we recognize them as the products of human choice, not physical necessity.

Why does telling a lie show a nonphysicality of the mind in a way different from telling the truth? This is the main question, and Gunderman doesn’t answer it.

I think he’s straying into religious territory here. For every aspect of our character comes from our brain, whether we’re lying or not. And all data show that that character depends on the brain, for character can be profoundly altered by brain injuries, surgery, experience of the world, or drugs. Dragging in the claim “we are in the end little more than the sum or all the moral compromises we have made or refused to make” suggests a religious theme, one based on moral choice, which to many religionists means dualistic free will. If we don’t choose how we behave, but our brain chooses for us, what does “moral choice” even mean?  Just because most people are dualists, and think that at any time we do have a choice about how we behave (we don’t), doesn’t mean that we can accept conventional wisdom for reality. “Right” and “wrong” acts are to be praised and condemned for the good of society, but we shouldn’t accept that common notion that we could at a given time choose to behave either good or ill.

Gunderman’s argument is so tortured, so unsupported by evidence, that I suspect it’s motivated by religion. That’s just a guess, but anyone who drags in scripture and morality to prove that the mind is disconnected from the brain has to be working on premises that aren’t scientific.


Funding partners for The Conversation, which funded Gunderman’s misguided essay,.


h/t: jj

56 thoughts on “Richard Gunderman at The Conversation: our ability to lie shows that the mind is physically independent of the brain (!)

  1. Presumably somewhere in the background is the idea that because lies are false they cannot be created by the operation of physical events, because those are “true”?

    The whole thing is silly.

    1. That was my impression too- that his foundation assumption is that if the mind is purely the product of physical processes it can do nothing but report current facts and must always be truthful. Because it doesn’t, therefore soul. It’s almost like a weird fallen world theology. Our physical brains would always be truthful if it wasn’t for the corruption of our souls or something.

  2. Thanks for doing the research. The same website describes the mission of the Christian Theological Seminary. I have little doubt that Gunderman’s article has a religious motivation of which perhaps he is not even conscious (maybe he can write another article about the brain on this topic).

    History + Mission
    The mission of Christian Theological Seminary is to form disciples of Jesus Christ for church and community leadership to serve God’s transforming of the world.

    o celebrate the presence of the risen Christ in Word and Table;
    o welcome into partnership all who seek God’s truth, love, and justice;
    o cultivate the virtues, passions, and practices of Christian leadership;
    o reflect critically on the sources of Christian understanding in scripture, the traditions of the ecumenical church, cultures, and experience; and
    o engage the spiritual and moral issues facing the human community.

    1. What sort of Table is one supposed to celebrate the presence of the risen Christ in? I spilt some beer on my kitchen Table the other day (Doom Bar, if that matters). Have I soaked the presence of the risen Christ?

    1. Mozart may be great, but that recording of the ‘serenade’ is appalling – tarted up in the most insensitive way with sentimental slides and a disco beat.

      Pollini’s Chopin here, though, really is something.

  3. This is I think an example of what’s called “naive dualism,” the primitive and intuitive assumption that thoughts and things are obviously different, separate, and without any critical overlap. There is zero need for any of the neurology or empirical studies here — less than zero, considering the long, difficult, hard-won scientific conclusion that naive dualism is false. Gunderman is just gussying old, tired, childish things up a bit.

    You can’t hold love in your hand — and now we know you can’t see it with a microscope. Science!


    From what I can make out Gunderson also apparently thinks evolution would have led to human robots. There is a tree and we automatically say “tree.” If we see a tree and say “mountain” instead then this is inexplicable given evolution. Evolution programs us. A liar then is like a computer which isn’t working, a bug which needs to be fixed not by technicians, but by throwing out the idea that there’s a technical problem here in the first place. We’re in magicland! No more robots being forced by their brains into being robots.

    This whole “you vs. your brain” dichotomy would lead one to the conclusion that a brain transplant might do you a lot of good, help you get back to your old self.

    1. Note though that Jerry is just as guilty of “you vs. your brain” thinking when he says things like “our brain chooses for us”.

      1. I would try to read that charitably and say that Jerry is just going along, momentarily, with Gunderman’s way of delineating “you”.

        Really though, saying “we don’t choose how we behave, but our brain chooses for us” makes as little sense as saying “I don’t have a hand, just fingers and palm and thumb connected in the usual way.”

  4. Doing more research on Gunderman, I find that he has an extremely impressive resume, including a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought.

    I don’t think I would hesitate in the least to have Dr. Gunderman as my radiologist. Yet, religion still apparently plays a major role in his life. His situation is a further indication that once the tentacles of religion get a hold of a person, they are very difficult to unloose, no matter how smart or educated the person is. Many readers of this site have related stories of how once being religious, they managed to shake off its affects. My compliments to them.

  5. An incredibly ignorant perspective. ‘Less chemistry than character’. Shallow words meant to make us take the bigger step which is: it’s all about the soul.

    Gunderman doesn’t have any idea what lying is either. It’s like a listening to the words of a grown up child who really, really wants heaven to be true.

  6. I think intentional deception requires a theory of mind, which is why research on this issue with non-human animals typically constructs experiments involving deception. And a theory of mind probably requires an advanced brain exhibiting a property we call self-awareness. But none of this is evidence of dualism.

  7. I wonder why he does not also include the seven deadly sins as proof of ‘mind’ vs brain. Isn’t that what the whole garden of Eden story is about?Fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.? Etc.
    – The whole argument is indeed very Christian,and not sustainable on any rational/scientific level.

    1. My initial reaction was that this had to be the work of a fundamentalist Christian. And, at the risk of sounding like a conspiracy nut, I’ll say that these Christians have learned that if they can sneak articles like this into respectable secular publications, they can then get a lot of mileage out of it. Because it makes their ideas seem rational and respected by scientifically literate people.

  8. My alma mater contributes to that site. I’m disappointed, but not mad, because I don’t contribute to my alma mater. The rightness of the decision not to contribute is confirmed by knowledge that they support such dreck.

  9. At the core of every utterance is an act of moral discernment that we cannot entirely account for except to say that it reflects the character of the person who does it.

    Interesting, so the entire study of confabulation is misguided and those people aren’t ill, they’re merely bad people who need Jesus more than a neurologist. Good to know that the HHMI supports such archaic and simple-minded reasoning from the dark ages of excorcism and the conflagration of witches.

  10. Sounds like a, “Soul of the gaps” argument, and it’s a totally flawed one. Does Gunderman anywhere present proof that the brain does not (or can not) “normally” lie? If he can’t do that, his entire speculation falls apart. Oliver Sacks, in his book on the eye, describes how the brain constantly fills in the “hole” in our visual field (where the optic nerve exits the eyeball) and how, in many cases of even larger gaps in the visual field, will attempt to fill them in with “visual” input that is not really there- is this not the brain “lying”?
    Not to mention that many animals have been observed exhibiting duplicity in dealings with their own kind, predators, or competitors- does this mean that chimps have “souls”?
    It’s just another sad, pathetic attempt to somehow make the evidence fit your own preconceived notions.

    1. Thank you for mentioning Oliver Sacks to counter Gunderman. Oliver Sacks was a most intelligent, great man.

      If mental processes were to depend on any given individual’s senses, sensory input varies greatly from person to person. For example: I was near-sighted as a child but didn’t know it until I got my first pair of glasses. I never could see leaves on trees; just saw a great big blur of green. We do not all perceive physical objects or events in exactly the same ways. Why would anyone think that we all perceive “reality” the same?

      There are many ways our senses and brains selectively inform us. It is possible to see or hear things that aren’t there, or to mistranslate what one sees or hears. Recently, we’ve been informed that neural messages are passed from stomach/intestinal tract to the brain (and vice versa?) The brain is not a stand-alone organ of perception and thought. Therefore, it is not ultimately, morally or otherwise, responsible for lying.

      Also, we’ve been told relatively recently that decisions are made in the unconscious before the conscious brain is informed of them. How, then, can one consciously lie?

      1. Given Jerry’s insistence on no free will, which I have a hard time refuting, consciousness is an illusion-just an internal reporting system, after the fact. And internal unconscious decisions are made according to prior experience and largely habit or genetics. No reason there to separate off lying from naive truth telling.Lying is a phenomenon of social group necessity (and not always accurate)not a ‘moral sin’and easily explicable within evolutionary theory.

        1. Determinism doesn’t imply that consciousness is just an after-the-fact reporting system. Why would it need to receive reports if it has no power to affect behavior? Why would it even exist?

          Say I’m shopping for a new computer, and spend several hours researching different models online before making up my mind. It would be hard to make a case that all the real action is happening under the covers, on habit or instinct, and that the conscious attention paid to Google searches, tech specs, price comparisons, customer reviews, and so on is just an epiphenomenal sideshow. Even if there are deep brain processes involved in integrating all that information (and why wouldn’t there be?), that doesn’t preclude a role for consciousness in preprocessing it and flagging it with emotional valences.

      2. One can certainly consciously lie – that is, deliberately say something one knows to be untrue. This is usually for what seem to be compelling reasons. Whether our subconscious has already ‘decided’ to make us do it, makes no difference to whether we know we’re lying, though it is presumably relevant to whether we’re morally ‘guilty’ or not.


  11. I think most decision making is unconscious if we consider conscious decision making slow and expensive. But consciousness keeps an eye and gives OK as long unconscious decision making is not flagged as erroneous or inadequate. If does then a conscious thinking must take control to fix the unconscious process or retrain if needed or insert adaptations in face of new data. But some times a person is never confident that an unconscious decision making alone can be correct especially when the wrong choice can be of a cost too great. Then consciousness intervention is much bigger and persistent – if time permits.

    Like a computer program we use in confidence, as an extension to ourselves, until a bug appears and a person has to take control over his code, find the bug and fix it or add a feature that practice proves as missing and the problem not adequately solved. Or even to reorganize the whole previous solution. To change the method or the paradigm. Then confidence can return even strengthened.

  12. But, but… many other animals (especially troop animals) lie, send false signals, and misrepresent themselves for social advantage. Do chimpanzees have ‘minds’, therefore ‘morals’, therefore ‘souls’? By his arguments they do.

    And if cats and dogs (in as much as they have been domesticated) have minds (ergo souls) too, then presumably it is immoral to euthanise them? Or eat them.

    1. This was my first thought on reading the post. If he is arguing for a “soul”, then he has just given souls to various animals.

  13. If the brain dies, the mind dies. That’s all the proof I need that the mind is not independent from the brain. Both mind and brain are matter. If the brain gets damaged, so does the mind. So if the brain dies (is damaged beyond repair) how could the mind do the exact opposite (heal itself and live) and then float to heaven as the soul? (Which is what all these arguments are trying to say, either implicitly or explicitly.)

    How much time did Gunderman waste on this drivel?

    1. Silly atheist, everyone knows that when the brain dies the mind goes onto party with baby Jesus for all eternity* or suffer the torments of eternal suffering, if the mind, while under the control of the brain, thought thoughts that made baby Jesus cry.

      *If one were to consider the ramifications of eternity, one would soon come come to the conclusion that there would be no difference between eternal pleasure or pain, as a finite entity one would be doomed to repeat the same experiences an infinite number of times to the point where one would be begging for the cessation of existence.

  14. “…lying is not the fault of the brain but the person to whom the brain belongs.”

    Here is the central problem. People are not owners of their bodies. They ARE their bodies.

  15. The ability to lie is simply a function of the ability to think ahead, assess our options and imagine the consequences of those options — not unlike playing chess, for example. If telling someone “x” will prevent me from getting what I want, but telling them “non-x” WILL get me what I want, then telling them “non-x” is in my interests (assuming there are no countervailing adverse consequences to me).

    By the way, I do think we need a shout-out at this point to Ricky Gervais’ film “The Invention of Lying.”

  16. Granted that Gunderson is off the deep end in claiming that lying proves dualism; that’s just silly.

    That said, I think he and Jerry are both falling victim to the same false dichotomy, from opposite sides. Gunderson says that cognition can’t be just chemistry; therefore it must be magic. Jerry says it can’t be magic; therefore it must be just chemistry.

    But cognition is no more “just chemistry” than computation is “just electricity”. My computer gets its energy from electricity, but it gets its computational power from the way its internal parts are organized into complex logical structures. The fact that those parts are transistors is incidental; the same logical structure could in principle be implemented using vacuum tubes, electromechanical relays, DNA, clockwork, or Tinkertoys. It’s the structure, not the individual parts, that does the heavy lifting computationally.

    By the same token, the brain gets its cognitive power not from synaptic chemistry but from the complex patterns in which neurons are interconnected. The precise chemistry is incidental; it’s the network that does the heavy lifting.

    So while Gunderson is clearly wrong about dualism, I don’t think we do naturalism any favors by insisting that there’s nothing more complicated than chemistry going on inside our brains.

    1. I was going to make the same point. A computer program, when sufficiently complex, is ‘beyond comprehension’ – that is, nobody can hope to grasp or remember all of its complexities at one and the same time, or predict with 100% certainty what it will do in every possible combination of circumstances. This is why ‘debugging’ is so essential. Even though each step in its operation is individually precisely specified and predictable.
      The same goes for airliners, or indeed any other sufficiently complex system.


    2. But i do insist, the electrochemical activity of the brain utilizes the hardware and it’s connectivity to allow this heavy lifting, it is far from incidental, it’s pivotal.

      1. Only in the sense that information processing requires some sort of physical substrate. But the information being processed is substrate-neutral, and does require any particular chemistry. We could in principle genetically engineer a brain that used a different repertoire of neurotransmitters, and it would still presumably be a functional brain, capable of thinking the same thoughts we think.

  17. Deception of course is ubiquitous throughout nature: from flowers pretending to be bees through primates giving false alarm calls to get food away from conspecifics. Isn’t the only difference with humans that we’re (sometimes) conscious of our deceptions? Though, according to Libet and those following up on his work, only after the fact. It seems that, as usual, people like Gunderson are making much more out of consciousness than is warranted. And coming to dubious conclusions in the process.

  18. I really don’t know why people go through these mental contortions, to try and find material evidence for their non material beliefs. Is it that they themselves doubt what they claim to be true?

    We could test Gunderman’s claim by removing his brain and seeing what mind still managed to manifest itself. But of course, we all know there would be nothing there.

  19. I haven’t read the American version of The Conversation but i suspect its like the Australian version which is largely a forum for academics who want to attract populist attention for notions that seem to have no assessment of likelihood process – some articles are good but a lot of it is pet political angles on the academics discipline – everything from dissing maths as western oriented to promoting chiropractise and alternative medicine

  20. Gunderman looks like a younger Ron Howard after a week-long visit to Floyd’s of Leadvile.

    And appearances don’t lie..

  21. I am a colleague of Dr Gunderman’s (same hospital, different division). I can attest to his religiosity as well as his overzealous sense of self-righteousness.

    Sadly, several faculty at our school have embraced Dr Gunderman’s “intellect” in the form of repetitive invitations to give Grand Rounds ‘lectures’ where his dizzying parade of strawmen arguments are presented as profound insight. I’m sure you can find them online if you’re persistent–and masochistic.

    As someone that has had to suffer his pseudo intellectual garbage for years, this intricate rebuttal has made me giddy.

  22. “Why you shouldn’t blame lying on the brain“.

    If look at myself, often not consciously, I lie to everyone including myself; I do certainly almost all these things listed in

    Unfortunately, I’m not very good at it.

    But isn’t lying a part of social beings, necessary to position yourself in society? And isn’t that what Gunderman does?

    If you want truth there is no other source than science; your inner voice is almost exclusively about politics. We are all players in a game called Natural Selection and there is no escape from that.

    If you think this isn’t true, your brain is probably lying.

  23. If the mind separate, and the mind and brain somehow interact, then the mind should be able to interact with other mechanical/chemical things. at death we should be able to see the mind “flying” away. It seems we don’t.

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