By Contributing Editor Laurence Gonzales, author of the book Deep Survival
One of the most respected psychologists of our time is Steven Pinker, a professor at Harvard and the author of numerous books on human behavior and evolutionary biology. Pinker says that our brains contain a “baloney-generator” that offers up explanations of our behavior. Often those explanations have nothing to do with reality. They’re simply the stories we tell ourselves that help us get around in the world. “The conscious mind,” he says, “is a spin doctor.”
Joseph LeDoux, an author and neuroscientist at New York University, demonstrated that “people normally do all sorts of things for reasons they are not consciously aware of . . .” and that “[o]ne of the main jobs of consciousness is to keep our life tied together into a coherent story.” LeDoux and Pinker confirm a long line of research going back to William James concerning how well we can know ourselves and how that knowledge—or lack of it—influences the decisions we make. The results aren’t encouraging. “If the human mind is a formal logic machine,” LeDoux adds, “it is a pretty poor one.”
Research in neuroscience confirms that we turn experience into stories—simple narratives about what we’re doing and why—and then use those stories to explain our past behavior and to shape what we do in the future. The most useful stories have emotional impact. And emotions, scientists have learned, are immensely important in helping us to act. Because we are human and have language, we not only generate our own stories, we also acquire them from others through legends, books, movies, and songs. Sometimes, if we are paying attention, we even acquire them from school. When our narratives reflect the world as it really is, we do well. When they don’t, we find ourselves in trouble.
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