Someone who feels compelled to make things up constantly could be suffering from mythomania – a psychological condition which leads the person to distort reality, and which, in the majority of cases, is found in people with low self-esteem who seek attention from others.
The late José Saramago, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998, once said: “Humanity reflects; it has gone through different ages – the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and so on until today, the Age of the Lie. It’s as if lying has become a custom, a habit, I would almost dare say, a culture.”
This literary thinking by the Portuguese writer could become something much more serious- It could turn into a personality disorder when the person lies all the time in a pathological way, distorting reality. It is what is known as mythomania, from the Greek ‘mythos’ (a lie) and ‘mania’ (compulsion).
It refers to a disorder that is not without harmful consequences. On the contrary, it has a series of effects at different levels. In society, a mythomaniac starts to lose their credibility and gets classed as a ‘story-teller’; at home they are seen as someone who is untrustworthy; and in terms of friendships, friends tend to drift away or the person ends up being isolated from the group.
Mythomaniacs, according to research by the University of Southern California (USA), have less grey matter (responsible for processing information) and more white matter (transmits information) in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Scientists believe that this abnormal brain structure could be one cause of this urge to lie constantly.
This psychological disorder can become, in some cases, as scandalous as that of Enric Marco – a Spaniard who spent 30 years of his life saying that he had been imprisoned by the Nazis in the Flossenburg concentration camp (Germany).
In any case, mythomania is not an illness in itself, but accounts for a set of symptoms that can show themselves in different mental illnesses, particularly in personality disorders. Therefore, no concrete figures exist for the number of people affected by this problem, nor is it known whether it affects more men or more women.
It also shows up in sufferers of schizophrenia, although in these cases it is a secondary symptom. According to the experts, it can also occur in people suffering from a fictitious disorder whereby the person suffering from it invents illnesses.
But we must not get confused between a liar, someone who makes up lies to defend or protect themselves for a purpose, and a mythomaniac, who recreates reality and in whom the impulsive charactieristic of lying prevails.
Am I a mythomaniac?
According to experts from the Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social, mythomania is a problem that also usually affects people with low self-esteem – they lie to make themselves feel important and because they are not able to communicate well with other people. They are able to attract attention by exaggerating or making up stories or anecdotes.
One example of this is the previously mentioned Enric Marco. He was also chairman of the Amical de Mauthausen association, which brought together Spanish people deported to concentration camps. He even received the Cruz de Sant Jordi prize in 2001, which was awarded to him in recognition of his long social and political struggle.
Enric Marco explained that the lie started in 1978, and that he kept it going because it seemed to make people pay more attention to him, which enabled him to highlight the suffering of the many people who went to concentration camps. “I didn’t lie for bad motives,” he stated.
There is also a case of mythomania in the world of showbusiness: Heather Mills, the model and actress who shot to fame following her wedding to ex-Beatle Paul McCartney. Her desire to attract the public’s attention led her to talk about details of her life which are far from the truth.
Mills said in an interview that when she was 14 she ran away from home to live on the streets, but school records confirm she was attending classes. She said she worked in a circus mucking out horses, when the truth was that she used to go with her boyfriend who worked at a travelling circus at weekends. If that were not enough, she said that one of her ex-boyfriends was a Secret Service agent, when in reality he wanted to become one but never did.
Not in the public eye but someone who drew attention to himself was Enrique, a patient from Europe, who used to tell his friends tales of his visits to America. He would name hotels where he stayed and gave vivid descriptions so as not to raise suspicions. One day, he was told to travel to the USA for work and had to admit that not only did he not have a passport, but also that he had never left his country.
Discovering the lie
Paul Ekman, American psychologist who specialises in the study of emotions and their connections to facial expressions, and author of a book titled ‘Telling Lies’, says that detecting lies is not simple.
“Detecting lies is not easy. One of the problems is the sheer amount of information – there are too many things to take into account at the same time, too many sources of information – words, pauses, sounds, expressions, head movements, gestures, breathing, blushing, sweating…” Ekman says in his book.
Once detected, the best thing a mythomaniac can do is consult a specialist. Although it is difficult to talk of a treatment for a condition considered to be a symptom, this seems to be the only form of help. The psychologist will be able to help by getting to know the patient – their history, background, lack of self-esteem, insecurities…
If there are other symptoms, sometimes the treatment may be supplemented with a course of sedatives and/or anti-depressants.
In any case, when we are out and about tomorrow and someone asks us how we got on yesterday, we should respond sincerely and not sow the seeds of a tree. A tree that could have an infinite number of branches.