Mind as a storyteller

I’ve enrolled this November into “The Mind is Flat” course organised by FutureLearn, a private education company owned by The Open University UK (OU).

Now I must mention the fact that I love Open University. I first signed up with them on a physics course in 2010, and I have been doing courses annually with them ever since. At least in physics and math, the OU course books are the only books that made it possible for me to understand the subject of study; this year, I studied Quantum Mechanics, and it fulfilled a very old dream of mine to understand and work with the Schrödinger Equation.


When it comes to how we think and behave, there are two common “traditional” views: one, that people are rational and they can justify their own actions and feelings, and a second view, that people are rational up to a point, but many of their actions and feelings come from a deep, unconscious place.

The first view is what most of us would like to believe, and actually do believe most of the time. We need to be regarded as smart, rational individuals, and even when we make mistakes it is difficult for us not to find excuses for them. Someone else to blame. The second view is the view most commonly used in psychology, whether we discuss of classical psychoanalysis, cognitive or behavioural approaches. It essentially entails the fact that people are sometimes controlled by forces which more or less exceed their willpower, and by uncovering these deep down influences we may try to change our ways and produce results more to our liking.

“The Mind is Flat” argues that most of the time people think and behave in ways that suggest their brains do not have encoded behaviours within; behaviours that would be for instance formed during the early childhood. Instead, the brain takes the most evident or actual elements from the present context or from the relevant past, and then combines them on the spot to form a consistent story, a story that makes sense, at least for the moment.

Basically, the human mind needs a credible, fluent story in each moment, and it creates this story on the spot, in the instant. It invents it. Each human conscience lives a permanent story, the story of the subject’s life. In this story, things are not necessarely well fundamented, it is not that every action or every word is carefully crafted as an argument that follows a set of objective premises which are found in the context of the moment or in our minds. No. It’s simply a story, that must suffice for it to be believable for the subject. It is exactly the same as a story that you would read, it makes a lot of sense for you (the main character), but it may not be so easily understood by others (the readers). Others may disprove it, may find it dull or pointless, may disagree or may like it very much. Just like with any other story.

I like physics. In fact, I love it. I love physics ever since I was a child. I don’t know why, and most often people around me don’t understand why I have this passion. Even so, it’s the story of my life, it’s something that has defined me for a long time.

I heard a story today on Grey’s Anatomy, that human cells renew every 7 years. If every cell of my body has renewed since I started loving physics, I am essentially not the same person, but the story of my passion stuck with me. I carried this story through the whole “renewal” process, but it’s essentially just a story. If I’m asked to justify my choice, I can’t. It must’ve been my father’s physics books found by chance at home, or some movies I watched; but hey, my brother lived in the same environment and he has no passion for physics.

The fact that I love physics, and loved it for most of my life, is essentially a story that I created myself, and then I stayed in character ever since. It is a story that gives purpose to my life, and I am really into it.

Saying this out loud sounds less exciting and motivating then I expected to.

In order to prove their theory, “The Mind is Flat” points out to a number of experiments that essentially say:

People generally understand less than they think they do; actually, understanding itself is a questionable and difficult subject.

On the other hand, where is this impression that we do understand things come from?

If you ask me, I will most likely tell you that I understand Quantum Mechanics. But in reality, there are many aspects of Quantum Mechanics that I am unaware of, either forgot about them or simply did not understood in the first place, even if I did read about them during my OU course. Right now, when I think about Quantum Mechanics, my mind goes to Schrödinger’s Equation, and I say to myself “Yeah, I can solve it, I know Quantum!”. But the subject is obviously much more complex, it took me months to study, with every day readings, exercises and tests that I passed as well as tests that I failed. There were parts of Quantum Mechanics I did not understand, and there were questions I could not find an answer to. But what I do instead, in my mind, is to take the most obvious part of Quantum Mechanics, the part that I enjoyed heavily, and I throw it as an answer to my trivial inner question.

So maybe, we just invent answers to questions that cannot be easily validated; when I ask myself if I know Quantum Mechanics, any answer to this question is not as easily verifiable, as for instance whether the Sun is up outside. The thing we don’t realise though, is that much more things that come to our mind are not as easily verifiable either, much more than we would normally expect.

So this creates a problem of reliability of the human mind, a problem that gets deeper and deeper the more we probe mind for reliability, logic and absolute values. There have been an enormous amount of experiments run to find out more about behaviour and thought. Experiments about how we value things, memory recollection or justification of our actions. The well known biases, which for me, until this course, simple presented mere facts and somewhat curiosities, without fundamental implications in psychological theories.

Hindsight bias, change blindness, choice blindness, and some problems we may face while taking financial decisions. You can search information about these biases on the web, or, chances are that you already encountered them by now. We even have difficulties in telling which is heavier: a pound of lead, or a pound of feathers.

Our emotions and feelings, are essentially based on stories that we create when we ask ourselves how do we feel. We do that often during a day, but not all the time. During a break from a specific activity that occupies our mind, we stop and try to see “how we are”, and then we invent on the spot an answer which is part of the general story we live in.

This explains why we sometimes react differently to the same situation; if people would have a consistent character and set of convictions, such instability would not be possible.

That’s all good and fine. I am starting to believe in the arguments of this course. But I am asking myself:

What happens when the subject starts disbelieving the story he is telling himself. Is that even possible? Or is this part of the story as well?

Obviously, the subject is new for me, and I am still learning about it. But maybe, when we find cracks into the story we invent, it is because we are dealing with a cognitive dissonance. That is when we find that we have two conflicting convictions at the same time, and this creates a problem.

How is it possible for us to be convinced of two mutually exclusive statements, when we are the same person? What if there is a politician you really hate, but he does take an initiative that has really positive consequences for you? How do you feel about that politician then? In one story, the politician has done lots of bad things and you really want to see him go. In the other story, the politician just took a decision that helps you very much. According to “The Mind is Flat” though, both stories are just that: stories. They don’t represent the fundamental reality we live in, nor a well argumented and fixed view formed in your brain.

The take-away, is that everything we feel or believe, our emotions, thoughts and convictions are based on stories we invent from incomplete or inaccurate facts, facts that we know or that come to our observation in the moment. So, next time you face a challenge in your life, you might just stop and ask yourself: “what story am I playing in?”, and “does it makes sense?”. Who knows, the answer might be helpful.


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