The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Many 18th c. treatments for psychological dist...
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As human beings we have a need to rationalize our decisions – even when we have no idea why we made them.

Over thirty years ago, when Michael Gazzaniga, Professor of Psychology and the Director for the SAGE Center for the Study of Mind at the University of California Santa Barbara, was working with so called split brain patients – i.e. people who had undergone surgery that severed the connection between the hemispheres of the brain he noticed an unexpected phenomenon.

the left hemisphere makes strange input logical, it includes a special region that interprets the inputs we receive every moment and weaves them into stories to form the ongoing narrative of our self-image and our beliefs. I have called this area of the left hemisphere the interpreter because it seeks explanations for internal and external events and expands on the actual facts we experience to make sense of, or interpret, the events of our life.

Experiments on split-brain patients reveal how readily the left brain interpreter can make up stories and beliefs. In one experiment, for example, when the word walk was presented only to the right side of a patient’s brain, he got up and started walking. When he was asked why he did this, the left brain (where language is stored and where the word walk was not presented) quickly created a reason for the action: “I wanted to go get a Coke.” (2)

We all have two hemispheres in our brains which operate in much the same ways as they do in these patients.  And just like split brain patients we have a need to provide ourselves with a narrative for our actions.  Allowing some time for thought and reflection before we take any action may not guarantee that we won’t make mistakes but it does at least mean that we won’t find ourselves in the position where we need to fabricate retrospective reasons for our actions.

(1) Michael Gazzaniga, The Split Brain Revisited,

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