Popular Science Monthly/Volume 47/July 1895/Why Children Lie

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IT is not many years ago that the occurrence of pulmonary tuberculosis in a person stamped the family of the sufferer as tainted. So lax was the common as well as the professional logic, and so imperfect were the observations drawn from experience, that the fact of inheritance clearly seen in some diseases was immediately applied to all cases where there was any ground for the analogy. What was true of one case must necessarily be true of all others that seemed similar; and the growing belief in heredity helped to make this opinion progressively stronger. Even to-day there still remains with thousands of people a belief in the "taint" of a family that has unfortunately had a tubercular disease in one of its members, and the general public is merely beginning to awaken to the distinction between an inherited disease and an inherited predisposition to that disease. As a matter of fact there exists between these two things the widest space; indeed, a predisposition may act as a warning, may insure a greater care and a better conformity to laws of right living, so that the threatened persons are often able to avoid dangers which formerly they might have dreaded as inevitable.

Tuberculosis is not by any means the only sickness which carries with it a widespread "taint." In the same way that an almost insuperable objection to a man or a woman contemplating marriage was a "consumptive strain in the blood," so an equally potent obstacle was relation to a lunatic. There are still other parallels between the two cases: one's brother who died of pulmonary consumption cast a cloud upon one's physical reputation; but if that same brother had suffered from a white swelling of the knee (tuberculosis of the joint), it carried but little significance with it. Likewise, mania cursed a whole family in all its ramifications; but marked eccentricity, kleptomania, or wrong conduct amounting to what we now call moral insanity would be entirely harmless, would be strictly confined to the person in whom it appeared.

This lack of knowledge and the consequent laxity in judgment have wide-reaching results. Outside of those immediately apparent they influence so intimately our methods and standards of education and culture that they call for more attention than has yet been given them. It is particularly in regard to education and the environment of children that I make these remarks, because here the effects act most powerfully for good or bad. Every day I see children who exhibit these educational distortions, many of which seem to a certain extent superfluous. And nothing is more common than to find children, with an evidently rudimentary conception of truth, who willfully and often for no reason make exaggerated or false statements, who seem really to deceive themselves as well as others, who make their relatives miserable by threatened lack of responsibility, which, spreading out in many ways, points to an unhappy or disgraceful life.

This fear is so common that the majority of people, I fancy, have felt it more or less. It is so natural to regard truth as the foundation of our whole moral structure, to look upon it as the loveliest product of a fine character, that any deviation from it must necessarily be held as most unfortunate. I should be similarly impressed if I did not feel certain that the fear is often wrongly placed, that this habitual telling of falsehood has its origin, not in viciousness or a spontaneous desire to deceive, but rather in causes for which the person is not entirely responsible; which, on the contrary, are the natural results of natural causes.

The origin is to be sought among the fundamental workings of the mind; it begins with our first attempts at perception, our first uses of words. A word is always a more or less complex idea composed of more than one sort of image. According to our innate tendencies these will be predominant as visual or speech or writing or auditory images. They are elements which every one's judgment in expression must use, and the variations give each person his individuality. Most of us think in speech conceptions; we hear rather than see our thoughts. It is only occasional that we find a man who sees a mental image of a concept, who clothes his thoughts in written words. When we do, we have found an artist who sees and remembers thoughts as well as things as definite memory pictures. Again, there is a class who speak or write their thoughts internally, but the thought or the thing is always expressed in letters. This association of thought with writing movements is most often found in those of a decidedly literary tendency, whose concepts appear to their consciousness as printed lines. Of course, it goes without saying that no one is absolutely confined to any one method. It is merely the predominance which is sufficiently marked to give a trend of individuality.

All these methods are simply the internal process of speech, they are the body of our concepts. Likewise there must be an external process, our method of expression—words. But it is not entirely essential that words should accompany the conceptions, and as a matter of fact we find in certain nervous conditions just exactly this state of affairs. And it is just at this point, as we shall very shortly see, that we may look for a frequent cause of the unnecessary, the unexplainable, the habitual lie.

The natural inference is that between the formation of a concept and the rightful expression of it there must be a direct and uninterrupted connection, with the least tendency to interference from cross-currents, with the fewest possible obstacles from exaggerated inhibitions. This condition finds a parallel to a certain extent in the phenomena of producing electric energy, its transmission in a current, and its final exhibition in some palpable way. Now, in order to insure this connection there must be perfect insulation, a perfect protection against opportunities for divergence, a guard and a help for the characteristic activity. In mental workings we have this insulation in memory, the principal property of nerve substance, the result of repeated and continued impressions. As concepts are conveyed through the senses, so the repeated recognition and use of them are provided for by the memory activity; and upon the normal and exact co-ordination of this activity do our mental workings depend. The relation and combination of remembered concepts must be absolutely regular, must coincide with the normal standard in order to give the person an image which will correspond with that of his fellows, which will appeal to them as really true.

But suppose, as most people affirm, that there is a particle of insanity in every one's make-up; let us for the time admit that there are variations from the normal in every man. We are then forced to say that, as the standard of the normal can not vary, it naturally follows that deficiencies are abnormities, are signs of degeneration, are signs which point to a lack of sanity. This does not mean that men so constituted are not fit to be trusted in the general affairs of life or to fill their places in the world. In the same way a man may be weak in the knees and still be capable of locomotion, even though he halt. Nevertheless, such a man is susceptible of mishaps and accidents brought on by natural inability; and, moreover, no one would be justified in punishing him for such accidents. In the same way no one would think of blaming a man because he was color-blind, any more than of punishing a woman because she happened to be unable to distinguish smells. By these analogies we merely conclude that we constantly find variations from the normal occurring spontaneously which nevertheless do not prevent the possessor from mingling with others on the ordinary footing of social and business intercourse. This principle has long been recognized among lower animals, but there is a natural prejudice against applying similar rules to men.

Likewise is this true concerning man from his first growth. He is born with the possibility of various characteristics and individual peculiarities. Just exactly what these will be and how far they will develop depend to a considerable extent upon his environment. Of course, it goes without saying that heredity counts for much, although heredity is not everything. Most of all is it not supreme in view of the fact that our system of education and culture has the strongest tendency for leveling, for mediocrity. Our infant education, our school life, domestic life, social life, all tend to trim away whatever of originality—good or otherwise—the individual may possess. Our methods are mainly inhibitory: we are constantly talking about what one must not do. The decalogue itself, the declaration of our moral and religious code, is couched mostly in terms of negative command. Thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not lie, thou shalt not worship idols, it says; and this is far different, when reasoned about broadly, from speak the truth, be honest, love God.

Given, then, a tendency to variations from the normal, it follows that our principal care should be to ascertain what this normal is, and to conform to it. But, so far as common experience goes, this is the last thing to be carefully worked out. The tendencies to variation are emphasized by the frequent liability to inferior physical conditions. Some of these are so remote that they would be thought of only by the physician-psychologist, while others are of such common occurrence that every practitioner is familiar with them. Now, one of the most striking of these—unfortunately not frequently noticed except in its ultimate exaggerations—is that disturbance of conception produced locally in the cortex of the brain by which the person is unable to distinguish between the internal processes and their external causal conditions. If the ability to differentiate is impaired, an hallucination is present, dependent upon processes in those parts of the brain which preserve memory pictures of the most varied kinds. As the result of this condition we may have expressions and acts which are seemingly at utter variance with the actual premises from which they start. The familiar example of the different views which two knights looking upon opposite sides of a shield take, is an old and trite attempt at explanation of this condition. In many, many cases it is not merely that people in giving conflicting accounts of a fact see isolated and separate parts thereof; very frequently there is a wider basis: the condition—certainly pathological in its results—of broken connection between internal processes and their external causal conditions. Thus, a child may be reproved by a teacher: we should expect that normally there would be a continuity of concepts beginning with, the commission of a breach of discipline, followed by correction from the teacher, and ending in improved conduct on the part of the scholar. But frequently this chain is broken. The child fails to recognize the connection between these component parts, or certain parts are obliterated and others exaggerated, or the impression is cross-currented or side-tracked, with the result that the final impression and account of the matter may be widely divergent from the original facts. The conclusion usually is that the child has been willfully lying. Again, the child may see two dogs playing together, and, being subject to abnormal mental processes, comes to his mother with a tale of a horrible struggle between ferocious bears, with imminent danger to himself. The startling element in the matter is that usually the parents either smile indulgently, remarking that the child has a vivid imagination, or on the other hand they will punish him for an attempt at causeless and vicious deceit.

However, I should consider this explanation problematical if it had no further basis than an obscure mental condition. But as soon as one looks carefully at the matter one is strongly impressed by the number of additional conditions which may act in similar ways. Indeed, the matter becomes so plain that we may say, broadly, that any cause which makes for intellectual tenuity has a tendency to bring about this state of things. Recently we have named this psychical trauma, a morbid nervous condition caused by repeated injurious impressions; and it is a fact that beyond distinct mental disorders codified as diseases some of the lower emotional and mental activities may in the same way be markedly injured. We have evidence of this from such signs as nervous digestive disorders, hysterical attacks, loss of sleep otherwise inexplicable, disturbances of flushing and pallor, all of which may be results of psychical effects repeated again and again. These symptoms should not be called diseases, or in any way primary disorders; they are merely natural results which flow from natural causes, just like the loss of self-control in fright or breathlessness from the shock of cold water. The continued repetition of them wears, as it were, a rut in the brain, so that any impulse approaching it slips out of its ordinary path in the direction at once of least resistance and utter distortion. Again, the very faulty methods of our teaching by rote, of mechanical repetition and memorizing, which seems to be the basis of our school system, must necessarily lean toward psychical poverty; and the more these vicious stimuli are repeated, the greater must be the effect toward an unfortunate end.

Still, there are other causes, of a purely physical nature, which doubtless will appeal more strongly to most readers. It is well known that the products of fermentation and putrefaction found as a result of faulty assimilation of food may act as irritants, either in the way of repressing normal impulses or exaggerating feeble sensory impressions, to the end that the relation of concepts may be quite broken, and even go so far as to assume the dignity of full illusions. A full list and explanation of the possible causes of disturbances of the perceptive process would be beyond the scope of this article; although it is distinctly in place, I believe, to mention a few of the most common, simply to give an idea of the wide range which they occupy. Among them are diseases of the eye, such as phenomena which occur in the end distribution of the optic nerve, among which are light phenomena developed in the retina, the so-called light dust of the internal field of vision, and the shadowings and polychrome pictures. These are all aided by processes in the retinal vessels, such as those involving the blood-corpuscles; likewise the pulsations of the central artery, opacities of the cornea and vitreous, and indeed all conditions producing entoptic shadows on the retina may give rise to illusions. And these are not all; in addition we may include catarrhs of the middle ear, irritations of mucous membranes and the skin of the head and face, blows and falls upon the head, as well as morbid changes in the viscera and muscles.

The sum of the matter is this: We constantly see children who lie habitually, and usually for no recognized reason. This habit is commonly looked upon as an indication of spontaneous viciousness. In the majority of cases this opinion has no basis in fact. The children usually are suffering from disorders of mind or body, or both, which radically interfere with the transmission of conceptions and perceptions from the internal to the external processes of expression, so that they are really unable to be more exact than they seem; usually these peculiarities are either neglected or cause severe punishments to be inflicted, with the natural result that they are confirmed and added to by various unfavorable characteristics of cruelty, revenge, slyness, and actual deceit.

Lying does not necessarily mean viciousness, nor is truth to be regarded merely as a saving means of grace. On the contrary, many a child may be led to forget the lie simply by being placed in proper physical and mental environments.


The result of an experiment instituted to determine the effect of rhythm on the visibility of a succession of optical signals, tried by M. Charles Henry at the Depôt des Phares, France, is to show that it is possible to increase the range through which an optical signal will carry by adjusting the succession of flashes according to a sufficiently complex nonrhythmical law.