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Watch out for the stories your brain spins

Aug 23, 2015 Success, Sunday Nation

You’re deep in sleep, immersed in a dream. A whole story is playing out in your mind. Suddenly, the phone rings. In your dream, it is someone who’s part of the story calling you. You reach out to answer the call. You now realize you were asleep and dreaming, and are awake now. The phone call is real. Someone different is actually calling you in real life.

But wait. Your brain was busy in a story. How did it know that the (real) phone call was about to come just then, and already have an explanation for the call ready in the dream? How did it prepare that part of the dream involving the telephone?

This situation is common: a sound in real life translates smoothly into the dream. A hooting car, a sudden bang all become explained in the dream world. How does the brain know they are about to happen in reality? I was briefly perplexed by this when growing up.

The explanation, of course, is simple. The brain does not know the real-life sound is coming; it responds quickly after it happens. So, when your bedroom window slams when you’re dreaming, your dream will explain the sound in an instant, in the context of the dream.

This is fascinating because it highlights a remarkable ability our human brains have: that of concocting stories at a moment’s notice. It seems to take a split second for the dreaming brain to accommodate a sound into the dream narrative. No forethought or deep thinking is needed.

I am highlighting this capacity our brains have to issue a warning. Be very careful about the stories your brain spins, even when you are awake. It’s a crafty storyteller, perfectly capable of constructing a lucid and compelling narrative, on the slightest of evidence.

That’s what happens when a new piece of information is introduced in real life, much like the sudden phone call in the dream. Say you are told something surprising about a certain person – that they have a child you didn’t know about, for instance, or that they have financial issues.

Your brain will get to work quickly to process this surprising new information. The brain doesn’t like being surprised, you see, and must find a story that explains the fresh news. Quickly. And so it will be off trying to tie up pieces of evidence old and new, and create a refreshed narrative. Within seconds, you might have convinced yourself of the parentage of the previously unknown child; or figured out the details of what may be behind the financial distress your colleague is under.

Here’s the thing, though: whatever your brain surmises may have nothing whatsoever to do with reality; it may simply be a reflection of the brain’s prowess in putting credible narratives together. Your brain will take your existing prejudices and biases, combine them with the new information, and bingo! We have a story. Which may or may not be true. But you feel strongly that it is.

Watch out. I see too many people misleading themselves in this way. Until I became aware of my own mind’s workings, I did it repeatedly myself. I still do, but less so. I am now always circumspect about what stories my mind spins. I wait to see if there’s more missing information to come; or if a different explanation suggests itself.

In our personal lives, this tendency to construct snap stories can cause much wrong judgement and ill feeling. In professional life it can lead to catastrophic decisions. Too many business leaders I encounter already have a story running in their heads: of what causes business success; of what their company should and shouldn’t do; of which type of employee is good and which one is bad.

So, when new information emerges, the brain merely absorbs it into the story it is already telling – rather than treat the new stuff as a game changer, one that requires us to throw out all old narratives and work on new ones.

We won’t ever overcome our brains, but we can discipline them a little. The first step is to become the observer of the mind, watching how evidence is put together, and stories created. If you can begin to do that, you have a chance of avoiding a life of myths.

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