Notice the Narrative

What‘s your story?

Human brains are meaning-making machines. We look at the world around us, and try to organize the information we find into a story. Our brains take in information, and turn that information into a narrative (a story) as a way of making sense of the world. This occurs in our external world— the leaves on the trees fall because… god willed it, or because the temperature fell, or because the leaves got tired, or because the earth was calling to them. This also occurs internally, with the stories we tell ourselves. I got an A on the test in school because… I worked hard, or I got lucky, or because the test was easy, or because the teacher likes me.

Like gravity, narratives are powerful, ubiquitous, and generally not seen. They shape our world, our thoughts, and our actions, but we do not really notice the narratives drive us and our behavior. Instead, they operate as kind of a guiding principle in the background, rather than something we actively pay attention to or notice. Moreover, we do not usually live by just one story, but instead a series of stories, some of which may contradict each other.

The narrative we hold is assembled from a series of facts, observations, or events, and is an effort to make meaning out of them. Our brain weaves these facts or events into a story, and from that story that we see meaning. That story, once created, also drives how we view and interpret the world around us.

To help you understand your own internal narrative, try completing the following sentence: I am a person who (fill in the blank). For example, you might say, “puts my family first.” Or, who is important. Who frequently fails. Who is great at my job. Who doesn’t live a healthy life. Who doesn’t matter. Who keeps messing up. Who makes the most of things.

To gain some insight into your narrative about how you view someone or something in the world, repeat the exercise. The government is… there to help people. Corrupt. Filled with people trying to do the best they can. Good at solving problems. Inefficient. Run by little green men from mars. Or closer to home, my spouse… loves me. Is there for me. Is selfish. Works too much. What’s your narrative?

It’s important to recognize that narratives and facts are not the same, although they can feel like the same. Facts are observations. Narrative is the meaning we make of those facts, or the way we contextualize those facts. Objects fall when dropped– this is a fact. Gravity is a narrative that explains that facts about how objects (Earth and objects) interact.

From our brain’s perspective, narrative matters more than facts. If we encounter facts that do not fit our story, our brains will change the facts rather than change the story. Not only to we ignore facts we do not like, we actively avoid information that undermines our story, while also seeking out information that supports it. This idea is called confirmation bias.

To illustrate this, think of a person you despise. Now, imagine that person doing something that is good, beneficial, kind or wise. Most of the time, our follow-on thought will be something along the lines of, “yeah but she probably just did because it was in her interest to,” or “he did that to fool you into thinking he’s a good person. He hasn’t really changed.”” or maybe, “well, everyone does good things sometimes. It doesn’t change anything” Alternatively, think about a belief you hold about the world (for example, government is bad at solving problems, or government regulation always makes things worse), and then think of a time or example that clearly demonstrates the opposite of that belief (for example government action is what solved the problem of acid rain). The examples, or facts, that do not fit our belief we tend to dismiss, minimize, rationalize, or otherwise avoid.

Contrast these examples with how you perceive facts that reinforce our pre-existing stories about the world and beliefs. Think of someone you generally like or esteem, and then imagine them doing something that you believe to be good, or something you value. Most of us will have an internal thought of, “well of course. That’s who they are.”

Suppose you are out of work, and looking for a job. You’ve applied to several places, gone on a couple of interviews, but so far, nothing has come together (these are the facts). One narrative that you could construct about this is, “No one wants to hire me because I suck. I guess I’m going to end up living with my Mom.” That’s certainly possible, but is neither true, nor helpful. An alternative narrative might be, “I just haven’t found the right job yet, but through the effort I’ve put in looking for work, I’ve narrowed down what’s interesting to me, and have a better sense of what I want to do next.” Both of these narratives can explain the facts, but one story is much more optimistic about where things are going than the other. Which story would you tell yourself?

So, what’s your narrative? Does it serve you? If it doesn’t, its time to start a new story about where you’ve been, and where you are going.

-Doc