How We Tell Ourselves a Good Story

From a Wall Street Journal review by Frank Rose of the book by Gregory Berns titled “The Self Delusion: The New Neuroscience of How We Invent—and Reinvent—Our Identities”:

One day when he was 16, Gregory Berns was riding his bike on a road parallel to an interstate highway when a tractor-trailer suddenly veered off course and came straight at him. The driver swerved at the last moment, which is how young Gregory lived to talk about it. In his latest book, “The Self Delusion,” he tells us how he saw himself on his bike from above, then saw the truck jackknife in slow motion, slamming the cab into a hillside and ejecting the driver and another man. He doesn’t know if they lived or died. What he remembers is that he felt disembodied, watching it all happen as if to someone else. He was having what is known as an out-of-body experience, a state that has often been considered evidence of the paranormal.

Feelings of dissociation are among the stranger sensations the brain can generate—but there’s nothing particularly unusual about them, and as Mr. Berns points out in this intelligent and provocative book, they are hardly the only delusions we experience. Memories are not the faithful playbacks we assume they are. To store them, the brain has to compress the actual sequence of events, losing detail in the process. Later we reconstruct them on the fly, with a lot of input from the imagination. Little wonder then that the stories that result from this process of memory and compression—stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the world around us—should be suspect. Are you who you say you are? Are you even who you think you are? Mr. Berns—having grown up to become a neuroeconomist at Emory University in Atlanta as well as the author of four previous books on neuroscience, two of them involving dogs—makes a convincing case that the answer is no.

This may seem startling, but Mr. Berns is not the first to point out that our sense of self is a construct made up of narratives we tell ourselves and others, jumbled up with scenarios we consume from TV, online and the movies. Like the MP3, stories are a “lossy” format: They leave a lot out. Much as the brain fills in the missing data in a digitally compressed music file with its own approximation of what the song should sound like, it fleshes out a story retrieved from memory with its best approximation of what happened in the spaces that didn’t get saved.

The technical term for this is “confabulation.” In “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” Oliver Sacks describes a patient with a severe memory disorder who covers his confusion with endless confabulations, nimbly bridging the enormous gaps in his memory without the slightest awareness that he’s making it all up. But it’s not just people in mental institutions who confabulate; we all do it, and for much the same reason—to bring some sense of order to our existence. As Mr. Berns puts it, the stories we tell ourselves and others are “the glue linking together what would otherwise be a frighteningly random world.”

Little wonder, then, that we rely on these stories so heavily. As Mr. Berns puts it, we apprehend what we call reality “through a shared understanding of the world. . . . Is reality, then, just a shared delusion? To some degree, yes.” Of course, some delusions are more widely shared than others: Mr. Berns describes a former college student who thinks his brain has shrunk to half its normal size. An MRI says otherwise, but the patient remains convinced. Not until an antipsychotic medication blocks certain neurotransmitters does he stop talking about having half a brain. Other, garden-variety delusions are shared by more people, but you might be surprised at how common some of the more extreme ones are: A national survey completed in 1992 and again in 2002 suggests that nearly one person in eight thinks people are following or spying on them.

Which brings us to the ease with which we share our delusions on social media. Mr. Berns focuses on the anti-vaxxers, starting with the notorious “Plandemic” video that surfaced shortly after the coronavirus hit the U.S. in early 2020. The 26-minute video showcased a discredited virologist as she made a series of bizarre and unfounded claims—that the coronavirus was “manipulated” in the laboratory, that wearing a face mask somehow “activates” the virus and that the vaccines are going to kill millions of people.

Mr. Berns focuses on “Plandemic” in hopes of providing “a form of inoculation” (maybe not the ideal term in this instance) against conspiracy theories. It’s unlikely to be effective, however, for reasons he lays out in the same chapter: Such theories are seductive because they provide an explanation for the otherwise unexplainable, which is exactly what stories are supposed to do. And once such a tale gains traction in a certain community our social instincts kick in, leading us to accept a questionable if not ludicrous conclusion because everybody else does.

But there can also be an upside to delusional thinking of the less virulent sort, Mr. Berns maintains. If we invent ourselves through stories, then surely we can reinvent ourselves the same way? And so we enter the realm of the counterfactual—what might have happened, what hasn’t happened, what could happen still.

Counterfactuals are narratives of possibility. Revisiting the memory of his narrow escape at 16, Mr. Berns can vividly see himself splattered across the grille of the truck—“a powerful counterfactual,” he calls it, that has kept him hyperalert to trucks ever since. Can other counterfactuals spur us to lead more rewarding lives by minimizing our chances of regret—by, for example, encouraging us to take chances in life that we would later be sorry we passed up? That’s the upside of delusion, Mr. Berns suggests. Because the story of your life isn’t just what happens. Your story is what you say it is—unless that truck driver fails to swerve, in which case it gets taken out of your hands.

Frank Rose is a senior fellow at the Columbia University School of the Arts and the author, most recently, of “The Sea We Swim In: How Stories Work in a Data-Driven World.”

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