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'Pinocchio Effect' Shows in Our Noses When We Lie

Spanish researchers monitored changes in people's skin temperature as they lied, finding that the nose is the center of all truth.

The next time you're interrogating a murder suspect or maybe questioning a lover about suspected infidelities, set aside the polygraph test and grab hold of the person's nose. That the nose is the center of truth is the conclusion of new research published by a team of psychologists at the University of Granada in Spain.

The researchers call it "the Pinocchio effect" for obvious reasons. The Disney character's nose would grow longer as he exaggerated the truth or straight-up lied about ditching school to hang out with monsters. But while the Spanish team discovered that the condition isn't specific to Italian wood puppets, they found that rather than grow, our noses get hotter when we fib.


By monitoring people's skin temperature with a special heat-sensing camera (think Predator vision) and asking them questions about subjective experiences, feelings, and emotions, the psychologists were able to discern the truthiness of people's responses. It turns out that when we lie, blood rushes to the center of our faces. If you're behind the lens of a thermography camera, the lies light up our noses and the inside corners of our eyes. The technique is not quite as effective in measuring objective truth in answers to yes/no questions. Rather, it's a means of gauging people's deeper feelings about bigger, murkier issues, like the beauty of art or faith in God.

"Is it possible to differentiate [between] a person who every Sunday [says] the Lord’s prayer but in fact is a nonbeliever?" said [Emilio Gomez Milan]( ), one of the lead researchers on the study. The research suggests it may be.

Subjects for the study answered from inside an fMRI machine and, separately, seated in front of thermographic cameras. Gomez and his partner, Elvira Salazar Lopez, then cross-referenced the brain scans with the facial temperature results to draw their conclusions. Not only do our noses brighten when we're fibbing, but the other areas of our faces–cheeks, chins, foreheads–cool down.

When we lie about our feelings, a component of the brain's reward system, called the insular cortex, activates. It's part of the cerebral cortex, which is the control hub of emotions, perceptions of pain, and our blood pressure. When we're grappling with the issue of, say, how to answer a friend's question about another friend's work of art–"Isn't it beautiful?"–the insular cortex comes alive and sends blood to our noses.

Milan and Lopez are big fans of applying thermography to all kinds of psychological studies. For example–and this might be an obvious one–our chest and genitals glow under the thermography scan when we're sexually aroused (men more so than women) as blood flows to those areas. Now, perhaps it's only coincidental, but now it's time for research into how our glowing genitals are linked to our reddened faces and Pinocchio's bulging nose.