Humans learn through stories. Stories are how we understand and how we remember—a way to hold information and to make sense of things. Defense lawyers know this. So do little kids standing next to broken vases. Muriel Rukerser said, "The world is made up of stories, not atoms." Stories create both personal mastery and connection to others.
A recent study at Princeton used brain scans to find that when one person tells a story and another actively and empathically listens, their brain patterns begin to synchronize. Their neural activity mirrors each other. If the listener fails to comprehend what the speaker is trying to communicate, their brain patterns decouple.
We each have a personal story with a plot and storylines. Our beliefs and assumptions ghostwrite that story. From an infinite sea of possibilities, our software determines what we perceive and process. The brain needs a story. It will infer one, so it's helpful to know the lexicon.
Stories Define Reality
A life story contains silent assumptions and emotional scripts that tell us what to look for, and how to perceive and process experiences. Some of our beliefs and patterns may be invisible to even ourselves. We make a story out of events in order to infer relationship and assign causality. We personify the economy or the stock market as if each were a story of its own. Marketers have also figured this out, which is why we see so many stories in advertisements.
In centuries of recorded time, no one ran the mile in under four minutes. It was impossible. Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile in 1954. Within the following twelve months, over a dozen other runners broke the four-minute mile as well. The obstacle of the impossible could no longer be constructed. Today this is commonplace. When the mindset of what is possible changes, reality then changes as well.
A placebo, for instance, generates the effect of the accompanying story. A patient is prescribed an inert pill plus some expectations (a story). In the majority of cases, the story becomes the reality. By anticipating an experience, one can create it. The placebo is a white lie, a fiction that becomes a truth. A recent MIT study showed that a more expensive placebo worked significantly better than a much cheaper one—same placebo, different stories.
When it comes to stories, we believe and remember only that which fits our plot. What we expect to happen in the present reveals instantly our experience in the past. Our expectations not only help us see, in fact they determine what we see. But they may blind us to other things that we are not looking for.
A professor, who is fond of telling stories, asks his students close to the end of class if they have time for him to share a story before they leave. They look at their watches, and inevitably say yes. When he immediately asks them what time it is, they have to look at their watches again. This is completely understandable, because their frame of reference for the initial checking of their watches was to see how much time remained, not what time it was. The first time they looked they checked to see if there was enough time left before the class ended. If we look for one thing, we may miss another.
There Are No Pure Facts
A story can take over the author. A feeling that someone creates is perceived to act on its creator—which can make us see ourselves as the victims of our stories rather than as the authors. "My doubt paralyzed me." "My work eroded my free time." We ascribe a story with a mind of its own to our own creations.
When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change. Neuroscience shows that pure facts are a myth. Quantum physics seconds the motion. This observation came originally from quantum physics and the process of observing quarks.
When we communicate an authentic belief in someone, this activates their brain to create a state of mind that transcends usual thinking and performance. This finding comes from neuroscience—even though good parents and performance coaches have known it for centuries.
We are hard-wired to convert our lives into stories. Our narratives—the stories we tell about ourselves—both describe and determine what we do. We become the stories we tell about ourselves. State-of-the-art neuro-imaging and cognitive neuropsychology have demonstrated how we create our "selves" through narrative. Our left brain specializes in personal self-narrating actions, emotions and thoughts. This interpreter function is the glue that keeps our stories unified to create a cohesive sense of self. These language areas of the left hemisphere draw on memory from the midbrain or hippocampal circuits, and the planning regions in the orbital frontal cortex.
The importance of the old story is to transform it by learning from it. We become wiser for it, and more adaptive. Rather than repeat the old story, we can recognize, own and assess it in order to decide what to change. We extract the lesson from the past experience to write a new narrative in a current context. The past becomes memory, like our lap when we get up to walk, rather than an active intrusion on the present. This places the memory on a library shelf in our mind, as a choice to revisit at will. We remember in order to forget.
Change is constant and inevitable; it is the resistance to change that generates most problems. We are most successful when we learn from yesterday, anticipate tomorrow, and integrate the impact of new experience. Remember two caveats in creating your story: You create whatever you think, feel and experience each moment. And knowing what not to do is at least as important as knowing what to do. You may not always know what the next right thing is, but you can almost always know what it isn't.
David Krueger, M.D. is CEO of MentorPath
and Founder of New Life Story Coaches Training.
He is author, with John David Mann, of
The Secret Language of Money, a business
bestseller already translated into nine languages.