We all hear that voice, the narrator's voice. You can listen to it now, reading this text to you. But, this voice is not to be trusted. So, let's explore how neuroscience deconstructs our inner monologue.
"Neuroscientists like to say that your day-to-day experience is a carefully controlled hallucination, constrained by the world and your body but ultimately constructed by your brain. It’s not the kind of hallucination that sends you to the hospital. It’s an everyday kind of hallucination that creates all your experiences and guides all your actions. It’s the normal way that your brain gives meaning to your sense data, and you’re almost always unaware that it’s happening." - Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett
From the day we are born until the day we die, our brain continuously receives clues from the outside world via our eyes, ears, nose, skin, etc. We do not perceive this information as sights, smells, sounds but light waves, chemicals, changes in air pressure. Then, this sensory data is translated into millions of electrical pulses. While reading these electrical pulses, our brain starts building our reality, using its senses as fact-checkers, and quickly adjusting to new data.
Based on this process, we “see” things that are not there (snakes in the grass), or we don’t see things that are there (e.g., the gorilla suit experiment, presented in this ).
The world we think is “out there” is, in fact, a reconstruction of reality inside our skulls. This hallucinated world of our neural models is not built with tremendous accuracy. No, the brain is not interested in truth technicalities. The brain is interested in our survival.
As the brain tries to build a narrative from all the inputs, memories, behaviors, or events around us, it creates a voice. We all hear that voice, the narrator’s voice. You can listen to it now, reading this text to you, commenting, connecting ideas, creating assertions. This voice is a superb storyteller that seeks explanations to sell and tell a neural world model.
The narrator’s voice is not to be trusted
This inner monologue builds deceptive narratives that lead to a sense of cohesion, a sense of certainty that looks real and feels real, yet it is not real.
The narrator’s voice confabulates. Constantly. Professor Lisa Bortolotti explains, when we confabulate, “we tell a story that is fictional while believing that is a true story.”
In other words, by confabulation, the brain constructs a fictitious representation of past events, believing them to be accurate, all the while with no intention to deceive. Because this is what this inner monologue does, sometimes it makes a story instead of admitting that our input data doesn’t make any sense.
None of us is immune to confabulation.
Not only that the brain confabulates, but as Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson say in their Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) book, our brain distorts our memories:
“The most important memory distortions by far are the ones that serve to justify and explain our own lives. We spend years telling our story, shaping it into a life narrative that is complete with heroes and villains, an account of how we came to be the way we are.”
This tendency towards neural model-making and world-building makes us model builders or world builders. Sometimes, we become model warriors and model defenders.
As Bruce Wexler says in his Brain and Culture book, “we ignore, forget, or attempt to actively discredit information that is inconsistent” with our models.
Whenever we find out a new piece of information, we tend to judge it. If it is consistent with our world model, we are inclined to accept it. If it is inconsistent, then we are tempted to refuse it.
The rational thing to do whenever we come across something new would be to try to understand. However, most of the time we blindly sort new facts into yes or no categories.
No wonder we create our echo chambers, surrounding ourselves with news and views that reinforce what we already know and believe. Identifying our flaws and changing who we are is a profound experience. By strengthening echo chamber facts, the brain tries to reduce the threat of change, the stress, and the unpleasantness of different opinions and models.
In his book Stumbling on Happiness, social psychologist Dan Gilbert considers that Ingrid Bergman’s character in the movie Casablanca, when put into choosing between rejoining her husband or staying in Morrocco, would have found reasons to justify and be happy with either choice.
The skillful narrator would create a coherent tale for Ingrid Bergman’s character to tell her who she is and why she is doing what she is doing.
The brain is designed with blind spots, optical and psychological, and one of its cleverest tricks is to confer on its owner the comforting delusion that he or she does not have any. - Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) by Carol Tavris, Elliot Aronson
Does that mean I cannot trust myself, my ideas, assumptions, desires, judgments, and plans? It does look that way, doesn’t it?
So maybe let’s frame the limitations of our storytelling brain like this. Because I know the story I construct can be wrong, I shouldn’t rush to a conclusion.
I realize that my perceptions of others are merely guesses and not facts.
I know that the narrator’s voice tries to improve my survival chances by bringing order into the chaos of input information that is always ongoing.
However, through sly biases, this narrator’s voice will create half a truth and half a lie that has the potential to hurt me.
Using layers of deception and smoke, the narrator can shape our virtues to become flaws and our flaws virtues.
Sometimes it builds reassuring narratives of self that try to explain why bad things happened or why we did terrible things. The narrator makes us the hero in the story of our life.
And sometimes it crushes us with destructive narratives, burying us into “Why am I saying the unexpected?”, “Why am I doing the unthinkable?”, “When will I ever learn?”. The narrator makes us the villain in the story of our life.
The mentor. The tormentor.
Subsequently, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson remark:
“Our greatest hope of self-correction lies in making sure we are not operating in a hall of mirrors, in which all we see are distorted reflections of our own desires and convictions. We need a few trusted naysayers in our lives, critics who are willing to puncture our protective bubble of self-justifications and yank us back to reality if we veer too far off. This is especially important for people in positions of power. “
The narrator’s voice weaves a spider’s web where I consider thoughts to be facts leading me to identify with my thoughts strongly.
Because of all these limitations and biases of our brain, Professor Nicholas Epley writes in his Mindwise book:
“No psychologist asks people to explain the causes of their own thoughts and behaviour anymore unless they’re interested in storytelling.”
If you take a piece of information from this article, remember this:
My narrator’s voice will spin a good-enough story to explain any thought or behavior of mine.
Thus, I am not my thoughts. I am more than my behaviors.
I can separate my thoughts and behaviors from my identity.
I can separate what I did from who I am and who I want to be.
Eventually, this is the way that allows us to live with the behavior we now regret.
Previously published at https://www.roxanamurariu.com/how-neuroscience-can-deconstruct-our-inner-monologue/