“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”
― George Orwell, 1984
Keeping secrets can be bad for your health.
You probably have collected a vast many over the years, holding your own as well as those of close others. While keeping a secret might save you some trouble with family and friends compared to the alternative – confessing – it can stress your brain.
Neuroscience provides an explanation. We have a part of the brain called the cingulate cortex (in the medial aspect of the cerebral cortex, for your brain geography). It’s a part of the limbic system, essential to emotion, processing, learning, and memory. According to neuroscience research, it is motivated to tell the truth. The cingulate shares information with other parts of the brain in order to move on to other functions, like emotion formation that is linked with behavior. When there is a secret to be kept, it doesn’t allow the cingulate to operate its natural functions, stressing the cortex and creating an emotional burden. This leads to the production of stress hormones. Wonderful!
As the prefrontal cortex runs simulations of the reaction you will get from telling the secret, the conflict increases in your brain leading to anxiety and more stress hormone release.
The results are really fun (not!): mood swings, sleep disruption, and disruption to memory and learning. Also, messing with your appetite and metabolism.
A recent study looked at the long-term effects of secret-keeping on well-being. Conducting a study of 600 participants, researchers from Columbia University found that 96% had a current secret, most common of which were romantic thoughts about someone outside their relationship, sexual behaviour, or emotional infidelity.
When asking participants to compare how many times in the last month they had to conceal the secret versus how often their mind wandered to the secret in times when there was no need for concealment, they found that mind-wandering was twice as common. Participants found their mind engaged with the secret even when there was no need to think about it (estimated at 2.5 times more frequently), a finding they reported took a toll on well-being. They found that this noxious mind-wandering happened regardless of the severity of the secret.
Despite the toll of keeping secrets, doing so is a part of being human. They can be an act of compassion (ex. not telling a loved one about some bad feedback about them). They can be an act of professionalism (ex. if you are a therapist). They bind us together (ex. we both know this secret and face the burden together). They can also tear us apart.
We fear the consequence of revealing a secret, but the consequences are negative either way. Tread lightly.