Participate One sits in a small office. She is young with short blonde hair and an innocent red sweater. Across from her is Julia Shaw, a cognitive psychologist. She’s invited the participant to take part in a memory study. Shaw wants to know how well she remembers her childhood.
“One of the events I want to ask you about is the time when you were 14 years old. You initiated a physical fight, and the police called your parents.”
Participant One looks surprised. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in a fight.”
“They said it happened in Kelowna, in the fall, and you were with Ryan.”
Participant One laughs and shifts back and forth, sitting on her hands. “Honestly, I don’t remember. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Shaw tells the participant to close her eyes. She tells her to think back to being 14 in her hometown, being with her friend Ryan. She tells her to visualize what might have happened that day.
Participant One returns a week later. She is beginning to remember the details of the fight.
“She said something to all of us and I said something back to her and we got into an argument… Maybe it was a verbal fight, maybe I pushed her, or something…. I feel like maybe she pushed me first… I don’t know. It just all seems so unlike me.”
Week Three. Participant One admits to the fight and gives Shaw the play by play.
“Ok, so the cops showed up and were having a verbal fight that turned into pushing. There were three cops.”
She is no longer looking around the room. She is no longer confused. She looks into Shaw’s eyes and replays the memory like it happened yesterday.
There are things we choose to remember and things we choose to forget. Our minds will rewrite history, invent details, and repress events to protect us. But what’s fascinating about Participant One remembering the day in question, is that the day never happened at all.
The argument, the pushing, the police — it was all made up.
By mixing real details — the participant’s hometown and her friend Ryan — with pretend circumstances, Shaw planted what is known as a false memory into the mind of Participant One.
Shaw conducted this same experiment with dozens of others and was able to get 70% of participants to remember and admit to crimes they never committed.
Shaw explains, “What could have been turns into what would have been, turns into what was.”
“Your imagination is the interface to your attitude.” -Scott Adams
Besides the terrifying implications this study has for criminal interrogation techniques, it shows just how easily our minds are manipulated by the stories we are told and the stories we tell ourselves.
Our brains are biologically hardwired to create stories to make sense of our reality. When we get hit with an emotional charge, the storyboards light up. We use past experiences and present evidence to project a vision of what is bound to happen next.
The stories we tell ourselves the most get syndicated. They are replayed over and over. And the more we play them, the more they influence our thoughts, actions, and identities.
There’s a bundle of nerves at the base of our brains that make up the Reticular Activating System (RAS). The RAS filters out what it deems unnecessary so more important information can come through. It’s a cat-like algorithm dropping off presents, giving us more what it thinks we want to see.
The RAS basically spends the day aggregating and delivering more data — or, evidence — that will validate the stories we hold dearest.
And how many times have we heard these stories from others and from ourselves?
I am just so busy…
This week is going to be so stressful…
I’m not good enough…
Who would ever want to sleep with me?
I can’t even (fill in the blank)…
We all need to vent occasionally. We all have our moments of doubt. But the problem is that when we beat these drums and recite these stories, our RAS is listening. It’s creating new filters. It’s circling in on more evidence to bring those limiting beliefs to life.
What could be turns to what would be turns to what is…
“If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” -Don Draper
Humans aren’t robots, but our minds are programmable. And we do have a choice in how we spin the facts. The act of telling yourself a different story than what’s actually happening is called Cognitive Reappraisal.
A reappraisal is a second chance. It’s an opportunity to re-interpret just what the hell is going on from a perspective that’s more beneficial.
“This is too overwhelming” becomes “This is a lot of work, but I’ll get through it. I always do.”
“Why is this happening to me? becomes, “What is this teaching me?”
“I have a face only a mother could love.” evolves into, “Ya know, podcast hosts are making a killing these days…”
This isn’t about seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. It’s not about “faking it till you make it“ or a plea to ignore the facts. But the fact is that re-interpreting the events of our lives with a more positive, optimistic view has major benefits.
Self-proclaimed “optimists” are more likely to overcome the same obstacles faced by self-proclaimed “realists.” The self-talk used by students, professional athletes, and Navy Seals in training has been shown again and again to have an enormous effect on achieving desired outcomes.
But what’s great about using cognitive reappraisals isn’t just changing the story. It’s taking moment to stop, drop, and remember that it’s still just that — a fucking story!
Brene Brown has a great phrase she uses right before describing her thoughts, “The story I’m telling myself is…” We should all take comfort in knowing that whatever stories our brains beat us with, we ultimately have the choice to rise and act. And that's what matters most: our actions and our decisions.
“We are what we pretend to be so we must be careful of what we pretend to be.” -Kurt Vonnegut
On the road to creating the life we want, our greatest strength and our greatest weakness will be ourselves. No other obstacle will stand in our way more than how we choose to perceive and then react to the events in our life.
But what’s great about this is that the solution is in the challenge: Change your perceptions and watch your actions follow.
Embrace the power of story and wield it to your advantage. Tell better stories, create better filters. False memories and negative interpretations won’t actually change the past, but the stories we tell ourselves do affect our present and future.
Want to change your life?
Start by changing your stories.