Not About the Bike, After All

  • Published25 Jan 2013
  • Author Dwayne Godwin
  • Source BrainFacts/SfN

We are suckers for Horatio Alger stories. We love it when the underdog defies the odds, pulls out the last minute jumper, or makes the save. It’s a surrogate for those times when we do the same thing. We know -- on a lesser scale -- what it’s like to be behind and losing, and to sometimes squeak one out when nobody expected it. Even when we can’t, we appreciate it when others do it.

tour de france

That’s one reason why the Lance Armstrong revelations hurt. They ram a stake in the heart of our childlike sense of what’s possible. Even with growing doubts, up until he confessed I wanted to believe Lance -- didn't you?

It’s hard to avoid coverage of Armstrong’s effort at talk-show absolution. Having seen most of the interview with Oprah Winfrey in one form or another, and after having heard the explanations about “why” he lied, how often and how aggressively he lied, I’ll leave it to others who have written on the morality of what can only be called a massive fiction. I only want to pick through a few of the tiny fragments to be found among the crumbled facade.

Attack of the Truth

The first is the notion put forward in the interview of perceived threats, and the attempts to justify his aggressive denials. It's this element that seems particularly hurtful. Ms. Winfrey asked, “When people were saying things - Walsh, O'Reilly, Betsy Andreu [wife of former team-mate Frankie Andreu] and many others - you would then go on the attack for them, suing and know they were telling the truth. What is that?”

Several sentences later Armstrong replied, "I don't feel good. I was just on the attack. The territory was being threatened. The team was being threatened. I was on the attack."

A lying flounder changes color to blend into different backgrounds (public domain image by Takahashi from Wikimedia Commons)

Now, lying is in our genes – we come by it honestly. It has an evolutionary purpose, from camouflage that enables creatures to blend with their environment to avoid being eaten (like the flounder), to the more complex deceptions of mammals designed to gain an advantage for things like protection from predators, acquiring food and other resources.

The brain’s complicity can be found in creatures as evolutionarily diverse as mollusks, and quail (for example, in their choice of nesting areas that exploit the color of their eggs).

But in Lance Armstrong and similar high profile liars, humans have wrested deception from the evolutionary realm of self-preservation and imbued it with dark powers it was never intended to possess – all in the service of protecting abstract, egocentric constructs like the success of a team, a personal brand, political power and wealth. Armstrong’s response when probed on his disparagement of colleagues who alleged that he had doped sounded as though it came from some core instinct – like a tiger protecting his territory, he fiercely defended it. That he was defending it from the piercing truth of his accusers seemed almost...well, secondary.

Lying is Hard Work

Another subtle impression from the Armstrong interview was the apparent sense of relief at the truth finally coming out. It’s interesting to note that certain brain areas, like the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex, seem more involved in deception than are others – and these areas are doing other things besides lying, so lying involves some additional processing and mental exertion. This cognitive “load” of lying, either in high stakes or in controlled conditions, is significant.

Closer to home, Jonah Lehrer, a writer on neuroscience-related topics recently resigned from the New Yorker, in part over plagiarism and fabrication of quotes from Bob Dylan. When confronted, Lehrer offered that “The lies are now over”, in a way that suggested that the internal stress of maintaining the lies were a burden to be endured, and relieved. Imagine: the effort of Armstrong’s sustained and carefully spun web of deception, playing out for so very long, must have been enormous -- the weight of it exceeded only by the hurt and stress of those who knew they were telling the truth, but were attacked for it.

Everybody Lies?

Armstrong is only the latest of would-be sport legends caught doping, and he is unlikely to be the last. But the moral failures of the famous need not kill the transcendence we see in sport and other human endeavors. Maybe we need something besides elite athletes to feel good about – something honest and true for which to cheer. At the risk of being treacly I offer two stories,one about a young fellow's hot hand, and another about a young lady's unexpected triumph, for your consideration -- and I dare you to watch them and not feel something.

In the end, the real inspirational stories belong to the kids and adults helped by the foundation Armstrong helped establish, LiveStrong. It appears that this - and not a wall of framed yellow jerseys - will be his legacy. It’s not a bad one.

And here’s a thought: unlike seven wins of the Tour de France, legacies like that are not beyond our reach.

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