Sometimes the things you find for your swipefile (where you stash interesting information for potential future use) are great for “here’s an interesting example of a point I want to make.”
But then, sometimes, what you find is more “here’s information that changes or informs how I see the world and all the people in it (including me). Here’s information that changes the rules.”
This article, my friends, may just be the second kind:
Our memory records very little of our lives. So how does the brain reconcile our sense of self?
If you follow that link, you’ll discover this interview with Emory University psychology professor Gregory Berns on Salon. He’s the author of a new book, “The Self Delusion: The New Neuroscience of How We Invent — and Reinvent — Our Identities,” which sounds like a must-read, I must say. (Amazon’s headline for it reads: “A New York Times–bestselling author reveals how the stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves, are critical to our lives.” Um, YES PLEASE.)
Anyhoo, the good stuff starts quick:
- We learn what “computational neuroscience” is: “understanding how the human brain does computations.” Why is that important? Because, once we have that understanding, “all the AI people take that and put their twist on it and make computer algorithms.” So, you know, it would be a good thing to get right.
- Then we revisit the “brain as a computer” analogy. If you’re a regular reader of my swipefile links, you know that this pure processing model of the brain is starting to give way to other models and analogies that reflect our expanding knowledge of the brain. Berns speaks to that by saying the brain is a particular type of computer. The brain is “fundamentally a prediction computer or a prediction engine.” He goes on to explain that prediction (which we could also think of as pattern-creation and -matching) is “what brains evolve[d] to do.” We humans “make internal models of how the world works so [we] can survive and outwit competitors.”
- The article pursues that “prediction” line of thought to our current state of “heightened anxiety as a species.” While that’s true, notes Berns, the ability of our brains to think (and create narratives about!) the past, present, and future tenses is one of its most fascinating and “beautiful” talents. Our ability to imagine “what might have been,” is a form of prediction, as well.
- The interviewer’s next question results in a meaty answer. The question: why is it so important for us to study and understand the fact that what we anticipate is “different from the experience, which is different from the memory?” Berns remarks that COVID “put everyone in a collective existential crisis” because it made a lot of us question how we were living our lives and even why were here in the first place.
- From there, he circles back to the ideas in his previous answer: this ability to operate simultaneously in past, present, and future is unique to humans. His dog, for instance, likely doesn’t comprehend that “they existed yesterday and they’re going to exist tomorrow,” (which makes me wonder if that’s why dogs are so fully in-the-moment all the time…).
- Berns also notes that we humans have to process that we change over time, especially physically. So the “self” of yesterday is different from our “self” of today, not just in life lived and lessons learned. As he explains, your “molecules have been rearranged so many times in your body and your brain that it’s just not the same person.”
- Then, for me, the rule-changing idea, which I’ll reproduce in full here: “So, we have this realization that somehow that person was us at a different time, but they’re not us now, and we’re going to be different in a year or ten years. We have to construct some mechanism to link all these together. The way we do that is through narrative and storytelling.” [Emphasis mine.]
- Without that, Berns says, we need “something that links all these versions of ourselves together,” because we’re not psychologically able to “handle” the idea that there’s “nothing unifying past, present and future, and the universe is random.”
- The interviewer then asks about how Berns describes how we experience and remember as “episodic” rather than linear. Berns gives us a great analogy for understanding what he means: that it’s “like being on a train, where you think of a train ride as a journey between stations, or stops, where not much happens in between.” He goes on to note that, in a lot of ways, “probably 90% of the day is pretty static, and then the other 10% is just stuff happening.” We encode and store only what’s different.
- That means our memories are essentially disconnected—they’re “the highlight reel of the day, or of your life.” And the brain “has to fill in those gaps.”
- And then—ooh! ooh! ooh!—Berns asks SUCH an interesting question: “how do you fill in those gaps?” His answer? By using “what psychologists call schemas. Or if we want to be mathematical about it, I call them basis functions.” In other words, stories. Narratives. Red Threads.
- These schema-level stories “are the templates that stay with us throughout our lives and help us interpret these episodic events as they happen to us. They provide a ready framework for slotting things into as they come.”
I have to admit that the last bit was my favorite part (apparently I’m an accidental epistemologist!), but there were still a few more great insights in the rest of the article. For instance:
- If part of you was thinking, “Well, maybe there isn’t anything to connect what happens in life,” Berns argues that, if the universe were random, there then would be no evolutionary advantage to having a predictive brain.
- Superstitions (and conspiracy theories and delusions) are a product of our predictive brains. “If two events happen in close proximity to each other, then the brain’s naturally going to equate them in some causal way, even if they’re not.”
- On polarization: “How can two people have completely diametrically opposite views of what happened? How does that come about? The answer is because they have different basis functions to interpret the events. They have different schemas.”
- On self-identity: “Self-identity comes from the story that you tell about your life, which is the historical part. But it is a story.… That story is one that you choose, and you have the capability of telling in different ways. In that sense,…the story you tell yourself is a sort of fiction. It’s almost a delusion. The story you tell about yourself to other people is probably a slightly different version, so that’s a different fiction. This goes on and on.”
- If you want to “shift your storytelling,” says Bern, control what you consume. “You need to be careful about the types of things that you consume from other people, because that will heavily influence your own thought processes.”
So good, right? Lots of juicy stuff.
How you could use it…
The utility of articles like this is that they can serve a dual purpose: you can use them to help support or illustrate certain concepts you’re talking about (especially if you’ve got “Sages” in the audience) and they can help you understand your audiences—and yourself!—better.
I’d say anything that can do that is always swipefile-worthy.These schema-level stories 'are the templates that stay with us throughout our lives and help us interpret these episodic events as they happen to us.' Click To Tweet
Please note that many of the links are affiliate links, which means if you buy a thing I link to, I get a percentage of the cost, and then donate it to charity.
Like this content? Be the first to get it delivered directly to your inbox every week (along with a lot of other great content, including my #swipefiles). Yes, please send me the Red Thread newsletter, exclusive information, and updates.