It is built into our neurology, into the very function of our brain to do two things. We tell stories about the world with the available information we have, and if we don’t have enough information then that part of our brain will make something up.
From Wikipedia’s page on Left brain interpreter “In neuropsychology the left brain interpreter refers to the construction of explanations by the left brain in order to make sense of the world by reconciling new information with what was known before.The left brain interpreter attempts to rationalize, reason and generalize new information it receives in order to relate the past to the present.”
This is all of the stories that we tell, and unless we can access some metacognition then we generally believe these stories.
Some really interesting science has gone into how much we can lead ourselves astray. You probably know that there are two hemispheres of the brain, and the two hemispheres specialize in different things. As noted above, the left side of the brain is the part that tells these stories. Now in most people, the left and the right have of the brain know the same information. There is a part of the brain, the corpus callosum that connects the left and the right half of the brain. So if you see something with your left eye, both your right and left side of the brain know what it is. In some people these connections are severed (it used to be a treatment for severe epilepsy, a corpus callosotomy. Patients who have undergone this procedure have provided researchers with a lot of fascinating insights into the brain. Today I’m going to focus on just one of these insights.[Note from editor Michon Neal of PostModernWoman.com: “Give thanks or recognition to the disabled and mentally ill who experienced this for the sake of research. It’s absolutely fascinating, but these are human lives that deserve recognition.]
One individual viewed a movie clip (through the left eye and into the right hemisphere) which was scary in nature. This information was “cut off” from both verbal and reasoning neural networks of the left hemisphere. The researcher asked the patient how he felt. The patient reported he felt uneasy, and said that the researchers were bothering him and being creepy. Confabulation of a reason for the feelings he was experiencing.
(from Clinical Reasoning)
This is fascinating. The patient made up a reason why they were upset that was just wrong. They were upset because they were seeing something scary. But because of the state of their brain the part of their brain that tells stories didn’t KNOW that was why they were upset. Did the part of their brain that tells stories say “yeah, I’m upset, but I have no idea why. Maybe I need more information?” No it did not, it just made up a story and took it as true.
Now at this point you may be asking yourself “Why is Alex spending all this time talking about neurology and what does this rare corpus callosotomy have anything to do with anything?”
See, the thing is, it isn’t just split-brain patients that have this problem. All of us are doing this all the time. We never have all the information. Some of the information we have is wrong, some of it is just missing, and yet there is a part of your brain that tis going to present you with a coherent story that is probably fundamentally flawed. And then we REACT to that story!
This tendency can be really dangerous in a relationship, and we do it ALL THE TIME. “They went to bed without saying goodnight because they are mad at me.” “They didn’t come home because they love him more than me.” “They were cross with me because I’m just not worthy of love”
Our brain is playing a mean trick. It is taking what it knows and weaving a story about what it means and presenting it to ourselves like it is truth. Then all of a sudden we are upset, we are freaking out, we are fighting. And if it’s all just wrong, what is the point of that fight?
So what to do?
1. Notice the difference between facts and feelings and stories.
A fact might be “My partner went to bed without kissing me goodnight”
The feeling around that might be “fear” or “hurt”
The story “they are falling out of love with me” Maybe they are. Maybe they aren’t. But if you have already decided that is true and are acting as if it is true when it isn’t, this is a fight you don’t need to have.
When you can notice. “I’m telling a story that they don’t love me anymore” you can already begin to calm down, to think about your thinking, and to think of ways to deal with that.
Here is one more pro-tip for noticing. Feelings can be said in a word. “I feel angry.” Stories need the word “like” in them. “I feel like you are falling out of love with me” See, that isn’t a feeling at all. It is a story but I think the story is true so it is triggering feelings, but the story isn’t the feeling. As soo as you say “I’m feeling like…” the next thing out of your mouth will probably be the story you are telling.
2. Check your assumptions
If only there was someone else who could tell you if the stories you are telling are true. Oh wait!
When you notice that you are telling a story, speak it. Say it. Maybe you were right, maybe you were wrong. “I’m telling a story that you went to bed without saying goodnight because you don’t love me. Is that true?”
That can be a scary question to ask, but in my experience the answer is often “Oh no, not at all. I was just so spent.” or maybe “I was really mad, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love you.”
If you are in a co-dependent relationship checking your assumptions doesn’t work because the person will say what they think you want to hear and not the truth. If you think you are in a relationship where you or your partner do this, it is time for some outside help.
So, to recap. Your brain uses the incomplete information it has on hand and makes up a story. Don’t trust it! Think about what you are thinking and do a little more digging.[Note from editor Michon Neal of PostModernWoman.com: “Rather than phrasing it as if the brain is lying, propose it as a useful but misused tool. Not something to work against but something to reassign. This exists for a reason. The imagination is for creation! Rather than for pure rational assessment or critical thinking. Imagination is a saw where you need a hammer.”]