I baked a cherry pie after coming home from work the other evening, the first cherry pie of the year.  The cherries were leftover from those we picked last summer from the cherry trees in the neighborhood.

I wanted to get a head start on celebrating the holiday coming up, the one we call President’s Day.  We once celebrated Washington’s Birthday (February 22, 1732) and Lincoln’s Birthday (February 12, 1809) separately but in 1968 the celebration of both was uprooted and moved to the third Monday in February, providing the US with a three-day holiday weekend.

Cherry Pie will be forever associated with George Washington because of that story of him chopping down his father’s cherry tree, the  “I cannot tell a lie” myth.  The story now assumed not to be true. The cherry tree story originated in the fifth edition of Mason Locke Weems’ biography of Washington and was apparently fabricated.  [1]

The George Washington, “I cannot tell a lie story” figures so deeply in our national mythology, serving as something of a moral cornerstone that our nation’s children have heard for the last 200 plus years that it has established the primacy of honesty in our national character. Washington certainly displayed no shortage of other real and visible virtues beyond truthfulness, yet it is this trait of honesty that we have collectively chosen continue to associate with him the most.

Truthfulness became the unwritten assumption that underlies our American ethos.  It is what we expect from our educators, businessmen, our doctors, our scientists, and our leaders. Some would argue that our national tendency toward telling the truth has prompted our nation’s past success in science, education and business, but let me come back to that.

I meant to use this upcoming holiday as an excuse to review new research on cherries but instead find myself reading about lying.

In recent years new technology has allowed real time scanning of the human brain as it goes about various including the differences in function while lying and this has furthered our understanding of truth telling and how it contrasts to lying.  A 2011 brain imaging study reported that telling the truth is kind of like the default setting in the human brain.  Lying on the other hand requires intentional effort to suppress the predominant truth response.  The more frequently people make truthful statements the more difficult it is to lie. On the other hand, frequent lying makes lying easier. [2]   The current theories about lying suggest that lying requires more cognitive resources than telling the truth…. It literally takes more effort.
Researchers have demonstrated that deceptive responses are typically associated with increased response times and higher error rates compared to truthful responses.  It had been assumed that this ‘cost of lying’ was fixed, it was resistant to practice thus this is a new idea, people who learn to lie and practice by blying regularly can reduce the cognitive ‘cost of lying’.

A 2012 study furthered this idea. “…  lying became easier while participants were trained to lie more often and that lying became more difficult while participants were trained to tell the truth more often.” In fact the newer study confirmed that “… relatively little practice is enough to alter the cognitive cost of lying, although this effect does not persist over time for non-practiced items.”  [3]
It turns out that “the more we lie, the more our brains seem to become desensitized to the act of lying…… the lies start small, but escalate.” [4]

“…digressions from a moral code are often described as a series of small breaches that grow over time.” Researchers have demonstrated that gradual escalations of self-serving dishonesty have associated underlying changes in neural mechanisms  that increase with repetitions of the lie.  This can be measured as a signal reduction in the amygdala .  The “…. extent of reduced amygdala sensitivity to dishonesty on a present decision relative to the previous one predicts the magnitude of escalation of self-serving dishonesty on the next decision. The findings uncover a biological mechanism that supports a ‘slippery slope’: what begins as small acts of dishonesty can escalate into larger transgressions.” [5]

Back in the same time period that young George Washington was (or wasn’t) chopping down that cherry tree, a new concept was introduced into medicine, the concept of peer review publication.  The Royal Society of Edinburgh is credited with publishing the first peer reviewed medical articles in 1731. The practice was slow to catch on though.  JAMA did not use outside reviewers until after 1940.  Lancet did not start peer review until 1976.  [6]

There are two common types of peer review, what are called single or double blinded reviews.  In single blinded, the reviewers know who the author is, but the author does not know the reviewer.  In double- blinded, neither the reviewer nor the author knows who is who.

As much as the double-blinded peer review is talked about as the gold standard for academic publication, it is still rather rare.  A 2007 survey of 590 chemistry journals found that 97% still didn’t offer double-blind peer review.

Personally, I dislike having my writing peer reviewed, especially double-blind review.  One has to respond graciously to criticism from anonymous readers who one quickly begins to give cruel nicknames that denote deficiencies in cognitive ability.  One develops grudges against nameless reviewers.  Sitting next to colleagues at conferences, one wonders whether they are the source of scathing comments that one never got over.  And of course in a profession as small as ours, the odds are good that your mystery reviewer is actually a friend.  Admittedly when the shoe is on the other foot and I find myself reviewing submissions written by others, I’m glad the author doesn’t know it’s me writing comments.  I can be rather critical when reading someone else’s writing.  We’re such a small profession that it is not always possible to hide one’s identity.  Some writers are easy to recognize by their style.

I frequently provide patients with links to articles published in the Natural Medicine Journal, which is the official journal of the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians, as a way to provide more information, articles written by either colleagues or myself.  The major articles in that journal go through double-blind peer review.  The shorter commentaries on recently published clinical trials are also reviewed but typically in a single blinded review and occasionally in unblinded review.  Articles in Vital Links, the journal of the Canadian naturopathic association, typically receive double blinded review.  Same for the Integrative Medicine: a Clinician’s Journal.  The bottom line is that in our practice of disseminating information related to naturopathic medicine, our practice is to actively encourage people to tell the truth and to correct misrepresentations that slip in by accident.  This takes a great deal of effort that is rarely perceived by the reader.  We
hope
that avoiding small inaccuracies from slipping in we reduce the ease in which inaccurate or untruthful information is published.   As we read in the research, maintaining an active habit of telling the truth makes it more difficult to lie.

By the way you can sign up for a free monthly subscription to the Natural Medicine Journal:
http://www.naturalmedicinejournal.com/
Cherry related information in the Natural Medicine Journal:
Cherry Juice Eases Pain of Running Race Participants
http://www.naturalmedicinejournal.com/journal/2010-07/cherry-juice-eases-pain-running-race-participants
Cherry Juice Supplies Melatonin and Improves Sleep
http://www.naturalmedicinejournal.com/journal/2012-05/cherry-juice-supplies-melatonin-and-improves-sleep
Health Effects of Tart Cherries
http://www.naturalmedicinejournal.com/journal/2011-08/health-effects-tart-cherries

References:

1. http://www.mountvernon.org/digital-encyclopedia/article/cherry-tree-myth/

2.   Verschuere B, Spruyt A, Meijer EH, Otgaar H. The ease of lying. Conscious Cogn. 2011 Sep;20(3):908-11. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2010.10.023. Epub 2010 Nov 18.

3. Van Bockstaele B, Verschuere B, Moens T, Suchotzki K, Debey E, Spruyt A.
Learning to lie: effects of practice on the cognitive cost of lying. Front Psychol. 2012 Nov 30;3:526. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00526. eCollection 2012.

4.  Jessica Hamzelou. Fibs become as normal as the nose on your face. New Scientist. 24 October 2016 https://www.newscientist.com/article/2110130-lying-feels-bad-at-first-but-our-brains-soon-adapt-to-deceiving/

5.   http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v19/n12/full/nn.4426.html

6. Hadas Shema. The Birth of Modern Peer Review. Scientific American online. April 19, 2014. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/information-culture/the-birth-of-modern-peer-review/

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