Everybody’s Got A Story. What’s Yours?

“ [P] erception includes a multitude of assumptions….For instance, confirmation bias — noticing evidence that affirms one’s world view, but disregarding contradictory evidence….contributes to preconceived ideas that keep us locked into a narrow perspective on our personal and social reality.”*

Wait, so the truth is that we don’t (actually can’t) tell, nor even know, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Meaning that most if not all of what we think of as truth is no more than the sum total of the stories we create and tell. The above quote is from a story in Nature about stories in Deviate, a new book about the stories we tell ourselves that we live in as if they are true. Here’s some more:

“…neural networks that make sense of what we ‘see’ are fed by a relatively small stream of information from the eyes. About 90% comes from other parts of the brain, allowing us to recognize faces, identify danger or read a sentence such as ‘W at ar ou rea in ?’ despite the omitted letters. That you probably didn’t read that as ‘What are you dreaming?’ is the result of priming your attention to a context of reading. What enters the eye is often an insignificant part of the story.”*

This idea that the brain tells itself and us stories about most of what it ‘sees’ reminds me of the story about the Ten Blind Chinese Men asked to say what an elephant is. As more than an aside, I’ve seen this story as the 3 men, the 6 men, the 10 men, the 7 men, and sometimes but not always the men are Chinese. Stories morph over time, a point to which we will return, but you can click here for a nicely illustrated version of 6 blind Indian men and an elephant. In it, the blind man holding the trunk says an elephant is a pillar. The blind man holding the ear says an elephant is like a big fan. Each perceiving only what he can perceive is 100% certain that he is right and the other is wrong. And each is telling the truth and right that what is perceived is like a pillar or a fan – but inaccurate and incorrect in describing an elephant as either one. Perception is everything and can be grossly untrue.

Another famous example of how faulty human perception can be is the Harvard Gorilla Experiment. Participants are asked to watch a video of 3 people in white shirts and 3 people in black shirts passing a ball, and to keep track of how many passes the white shirts made. What gets completely missed by half of the participants is that a gorilla-costumed person enters the scene, looks right at the camera, thumps his chest, and after 9 seconds leaves. Participants said, and I’m sure believed to be true, that they would never miss anything like that, only to find out that, lo and behold, half of them did! The experimenters concluded that we are not only missing a lot of truth but have no idea how true for us it is that we are living more in our stories than in what we think of as truth.

And what about science altogether, thought by so many to be the epitome of truth. Not even counting the more conscious and deliberate fudge factoring to make data fit a scientist’s hypothesis, one need only consider the discoveries of Copernicus, Newton, and Einstein to know that what we hold true can become untrue over time. Seems that the best we can do is to tell ourselves stories that morph into new stories once new perceptions render the old stories unhelpful and false. This is why it is said that eyewitness testimony is not as truthful as we would like to think. Studies show that the story morphs over time. So, for example, if there is a weapon at the scene of the crime, the eyewitness may be more likely to focus so much on the weapon (like the white shirts in Gorilla Experiment) that other relevant and important details of the crime are forgotten, distorted, or missed at the time. It was also found that an eyewitness story could be altered simply by the modification of a single world in the interviewer’s question. Once again, more about the stories created and told than what we like to think of as truth.

Why, why, why? What is the point of all this illusion, deception, revision, and incomplete information in perception. Why hasn’t evolution or god or the universe or someone fixed this problem? Maybe because it helps us. We cannot possibly process all the stimuli in and around us. It’s too much. You already know what overload feels like. Can you even imagine life without the Selective Attention we use in the moment to help control the flow of information and keep us sane. And can you even imagine having to remember every single detail of everything that ever happened to you in the past exactly as it happened to you. Einstein said we should never have anything in our heads that doesn’t need to be there. It appears that what does need to be there is the right amount and kind of information to arrange into a story with enough meaning to help us move forward in our lives in the best possible way.

Do the stories we live in (star in) always help us to move forward in our lives in the best possible way? No they do not. Sometimes they restrict and ruin everything. Take the women** who tell me their stories that there is something wrong with them or, worse, that they are nothing without a man. This faulty perception is not their fault exactly. Evolutionary psychology might say that women are more and less wired for it. In the Origins of Virtue, Matt Ridley tells us that meat is the currency the alpha male chimps pays his allies to keep him in power, sharing the meat not just with male allies, but with his mother and girlfriends too. To the extent we may have behaved similarly, way back when our brains were forming, it’s conceivable that females competed for men to provide meat (iron) to help make and feed their babies, and for protection of themselves and their babies too. That’s one story.

Another story is found in Geoffrey Miller’s, The Mating Mind. Miller tells us that ancestral females would have been much safer in a group of a sisters, aunts, and female friends than with a single male in a nuclear family. He believes that female humans were large and strong as primates, and did not need to rely for safety on males only 10% taller than they were themselves. He adds that many hunter-gatherer women today, when asked, will say many men eat too much, require too much care, and are basically more trouble than they area worth. Okay, that’s a bit of a different story. Which one is true? Doesn’t matter. Look, times have changed. Women can feed themselves and their babies, not all women are even going to have babies, we are no longer on the savannah, and the ways in which people can now live purposeful and fulfilling appear limitless to me – and more dependent on the stories we tell ourselves, and how much we believe them and live in them, than anything else.

Take the people who live in a story that other people have it better, in work, in life. FOMO (fear of missing out), more stories (based on other peoples stories) that can be revised. To revise and improve the story in which we live we have to mess with the mind. But heck, the mind messes with us all the time, so why not. Go ahead and rewrite the beginning, the middle, the end, in whatever ways you like, to bring a smile to your life. For sure, we all have something for which to be grateful, if only that we live and breathe to fight another day – even better to enjoy it. Practice, practice, practice…and see what happens.

For help with this or something else, Contact Me at:

Email:  Madelaine Weiss

Phone:   202-617-0821

* “Our Useful Inability to See Reality,” Douwe Draaisma, April 20, 2017. http://www.nature.com.edgesuite.net/nature/journal/v544/n7650/full/544296a.html

** Examples and illustrations are fictional composites inspired by but not depicting nor referring to any actual specific person in my practice or life experience.

Copyright © 2017. Madelaine Claire Weiss. All rights reserved.


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