The Brain is a Story-Making Organ

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist, says that “time and again our mind makes up all kinds of shit that has no basis in reality.” Our perceptual world, how we see things, is dramatically influenced by our brain and filtered by experiences.  

Maryann was upset she’d not been invited to a friend’s 40th birthday celebration. She found out from Facebook, pictures of her group of friends having a great time. She was deeply hurt and rethinking her friendships. It turned out she was completely wrong. She was invited. Her friends expressed concern about her not being there. They even left voice messages she’d ignore, too occupied with her new story of her friends’ coup d’etat.

A couple of weeks ago, I met Becky and Nan for L&L (lunch, and laughter). What was not funny to me was that after lunch I was going to Dr. Martinez’s office for a pneumonia shot. Disturbing thoughts kept tapping for my attention. My scarred lungs overreact to the slightest cold. Getting this shot was probably a big mistake. I will have a reaction that impedes my breathing, and I love breathing. Didn’t I read somewhere how the pneumonia shot put an x-tuberculosis person in the hospital where she died soon after? When we parted, I hugged my “sisters”—in case I don’t see you again—I said. Nan laughed, and Becky said, “little chance of that,” and then she burst into laughter. This is not funny. I need nicer friends. At the doctor’s office, I paced back and forth, rehearsing what I’d say to the nurse. You must check with Dr. Martinez to make sure it’s safe. Remind him my lungs are compromised. Ten minutes past my appointment time, I wondered if it was a sign to skedaddle. “Edith Andersen,” the receptionist calls. This was it. I took a deep breath. I do love breathing. “Edith, I am looking at your records, and you already had your first of two pneumonia shots six months ago. You have to wait until there is a year between them.” 

My fear (past experiences) hijacked my brain. Instead of recognizing that when it comes to shortness of breath, a feather can flip me to fright. I know this. Why didn’t I ask Tim if he remembered what shots I’d had? He remembers everything. Instead, my brain made up a new story.  I didn’t look at the other side of the coin.

Speaking of coins, Dr. Davidson tells of an experiment with children from both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. They were asked to describe the size of a coin. What happened? The children from low-income families described the coin as much bigger than the children from an affluent background. If the size of a coin can be influenced by economic status, think how our brain is shaping our minds. We have developed beliefs that have no bearing on reality. And if we don’t know it, how do we question it?

Social media can be fodder for our story teller. Blogposts and conversations with friends, I learn how Facebook is lowering people’s self-esteem. Then others say it’s a great way to keep in touch and learn what others are doing. You tell yourself the lack of likes to your posts, quantified in hard cold numbers, proves you are not liked. Or you can examine your reaction. Perhaps people didn’t react because there was another story that caught their interest. Maybe my post wasn’t that interesting. If something makes us uncomfortable, we ask why. But it is equally important to remember that the brain is a story making organ.    

I recall reading a story about a father who had learned that his only son was killed in a battle. The grief so crippled him that people said he was a changed man. Months later, when his son hobbled into town on crutches, people were overjoyed and ran ahead of him to tell his father. “Your son is not dead. He’s come home.” The old man saw the injured man walking towards him, but the story his brain had convinced him of couldn’t be unraveled. “That is not my son. My son is dead.” He closed the door.

A neighborhood acquaintance posted a story, a high school principal’s speech to students and faculty. The content was America first and only, no activities based on race, or gender and for kids to up their dress code, etc. Her friends lauded the principal’s values. I fact-checked it. It turned out it was never a speech, but an opinion piece by a Southern California talk show host Dennis Prager. This opinion piece showed up around the country. September 2010, “Principal’s Remarks at a South Texas school.” November 2010, “California Principal’s Opening Message to Students. July 2011, “We watched high school principal Dennis Prager of Colorado, along with Sara Palin and Tom Brokaw on TV…” Not only do we have our brain fibbing, but the likelihood we get spun by internet rumors is significant. To end the spinning class, we can check our resources.

After I posted a link, fact-checked and verified, the person who’d posted the story replied (paraphrased): It doesn’t matter. It’s a good speech (no, it was an opinion) and all students should hear it (that’s your opinion). It’s enough of a challenge that our brain creates pulp fiction that behaves like a computer virus we can’t delete. If only our brain, like the computer system popup message, sent a warning, “what you are about to say may misinform.” 

I recall posting information that confirmed my mindset. Probably something about the mistreatment of children or cruelty towards animals. It was well written, confirming my view on the issue. My brain enjoyed it like my taste buds savor a cake baked to perfection with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Then I discovered the cake was fake and the ice cream an illusion, but the greyhound was out of the cage. Putting a lid on the false tale was too late. I sat with the sinking feeling that my laziness and overzealous eagerness meant I’d spread half-truths. It was a lesson learned. From then on, I include a link to my source, sometimes asking Facebook to post information that contradicts my post. Why? I aspire to be forthright, unambiguous, and honest. I seek not to jump in front of or onto the bandwagon retelling tales because my mind says it’s so. I’ve gained a healthy amount of distrust for my mind’s stories.

Humans are storytellers by nature. We know that we love to tell stories of what we hear about others and stuff that’s happened to us. But we don’t always realize that we are continually and privately telling stories to ourselves. Often those stories are half-truths or zero-truths. After a lifetime, each story a grain of sand has become a huge dune of beliefs. The stories are persuasive. Our mind gullible. But we have tools in our mental box: examine, question, and admit our biases. What we perceive is happening to us is just a part of the story— but we hold the pen. 

4 thoughts on “The Brain is a Story-Making Organ

  1. Great article. I held a family session last week, a family member was dx. with a fatal illness, the family was crying and planning a funeral. The 7 year old grandson said….Could we just think….. He realized that there was a story. thanks Edith for a great article in mindfulness. eileen ________________________________

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Girls compete with one another. Women empower one another.