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The person you call ‘I’ may be a fictional character

A few years ago I wrote here: watch out for the stories your mind is capable of spinning. You will easily believe lies are truth, and the truth is a lie.

Consider the example I gave you then. You are deep in sleep, and immersed in a vivid dream. A sound from the outside world interrupts your dream – a crash, a phone call, a shout. That sound will now become part of the story of your dream. It will be incorporated in the tale your mind is spinning. In your dream, someone is now calling or shouting, or something has fallen.

Yet the mind had no idea the sound was about to occur just then. It simply concocted a new storyline at a moment’s notice. The external sound was incorporated into the dream narrative, with no forethought, and in a split second. How cool is that?

Also – how scary is that? Because the story-telling also happens when you are wide awake

Reading Yuval Noah Harari’s provocative epic, Homo Deus, shed some light for me on this capacity of the brain. The author posits (based on work done by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman) that we have at least two different selves in us: an experiencing self and a narrating self. This is probably the most important explanation of human behaviour I have come across in recent years. It explains so much.

Harari calls the experiencing self our moment-to-moment consciousness. It is objective and factual. It tells no stories – but it also remembers very little. It is not consulted when big decisions must be made. That authority is given to the narrating self – the story-teller inside us all. The narrating self is not objective. It is biased and partisan, and tells the story that suits it and makes it feel safe and comfortable.

Paediatricians know this well. After a painful injection, they will give a child a sweet. The final ten seconds of minor pleasure can erase the hours of anxiety and sharp pain the child experiences. The narrating self censors the worst bits to suit itself. It draws upon the raw data provided by the experiencing self and adds meaning and narrative. And then everything becomes fuzzy and murky.

The point is this: the narrating self is in charge. When you say ‘I’, you are referring to the spiel spun by your story-telling self, not the objective stream of experiences you have undergone. You are referring to the interpretation, not the facts. The mind tries to turn the randomnesses, cruelties and frustrations of life into a yarn that stops us from feeling helpless. The yarn may be full of inconsistencies and holes, but so what? The narrator is in charge, not the objective observer. The truth is what ‘I’ say it is. The problem is, we rarely know we are spinning stories rather than telling truths. And sometimes we hold on to the story at all costs, even when our consequent behaviour is extremely damaging to those around us.

This is how wars and mass deaths are justified. A story that claims ‘they did not die in vain’ must be told and reinforced by all. That is why we conduct many rituals to ‘honour’ those who perished in mindless carnage caused by a few vested interests. The stories around our tribes, religions, nations and football teams can cause us to kill or be killed – and be honoured for it.

We all choose our stories. Professor Harari puts it well: ‘Each of us has a sophisticated system that throws away most of our experiences, keeps only a few choice samples, mixes them up with bits from movies we saw, novels we read, speeches we heard…and weaves out of that jumble a seemingly coherent story about who I am, where I came from, and where I am going.’

This plot then drives our actual behaviour. If you have convinced yourself you are a person who is widely respected, you will dismiss all evidence to the contrary and label all your critics haters and losers. If your core story is that of a wise person, you will find it very difficult to own up to your foolishnesses, even if they occur regularly. If your narrative is that of the victim, everything in life will seem like a plot against you.

Join me here next week to see how these fictitious stories may be playing out in your own life.

(Sunday Nation, 17 March 2019)

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