Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

This is a great article about the unifying voice in the brain that tries to make sense of things that we perceive and often confabulating the cause and effect to make things make more sense.

An excerpt to get the gist:

The "Interpreter" in Your Head Spins Stories to Make Sense of the World

...When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time in the desert of Southern California—out in the desert scrub and dry bunchgrass, surrounded by purple mountains, creosote bush, coyotes, and rattlesnakes. The reason I am still here today is because I have nonconscious processes that were honed by evolution.

I jumped out of the way of many a rattlesnake, but that is not all. I also jumped out of the way of grass that rustled in the wind. I jumped, that is, before I was consciously aware that it was the wind that rustled the grass, rather than a rattler. If I had had only my conscious processes to depend on, I probably would have jumped less but been bitten on more than one occasion.

Conscious processes are slow, as are conscious decisions. As a person is walking, sensory inputs from the visual and auditory systems go to the thalamus, a type of brain relay station. Then the impulses are sent to the processing areas in the cortex, next relayed to the frontal cortex. There they are integrated with other higher mental processes, and perhaps the information makes it into the stream of consciousness, which is when a person becomes consciously aware of the information (there is a snake!). In the case of the rattler, memory then kicks in the information that rattlesnakes are poisonous and what the consequences of a rattlesnake bite are. I make a decision (I don’t want it to bite me), quickly calculate how close I am to the snake, and answer a question: Do I need to change my current direction and speed? Yes, I should move back. A command is sent to put the muscles into gear, and they then do it.

All this processing takes a long time, up to a second or two. Luckily, all that doesn’t have to occur. The brain also takes a nonconscious shortcut through the amygdala, which sits under the thalamus and keeps track of everything. If a pattern associated with danger in the past is recognized by the amygdala, it sends an impulse along a direct connection to the brain stem, which activates the fight-or-flight response and rings the alarm. I automatically jump back before I realize why.

If you were to have asked me why I had jumped, I would have replied that I thought I’d seen a snake. The reality, however, is that I jumped way before I was conscious of the snake. My explanation is from post hoc information I have in my conscious system. When I answered that question, I was, in a sense, confabulating—giving a fictitious account of a past event, believing it to be true.

I confabulated because our human brains are driven to infer causality. They are driven to make sense out of scattered facts. The facts that my conscious brain had to work with were that I saw a snake, and I jumped. It did not register that I jumped before I was consciously aware of it...

What this means as a manager (or really, as a human being) is that people are literally telling themselves stories about what has happened, explaining things to themselves and to you. Which is why when you have two people having an argument, there are three actual sides to that argument: what each person interpreted happened, and what actually happened.

Quite frankly, even if a third party, not involved in the argument was present, they still wouldn't be able to tell you what ACTUALLY happened, though, for the same reason: their interpreter is giving them a story that explains what they are seeing, and may be "filling in" things that may or may not have happened, but they definitely remember because of this brain mechanism.

As a manager, this is of note when there are discrepancies between your experience and that of co-workers or employees. These discrepancies are often frustrating, and denying the reality that someone else has experienced--even if it was a story their brain was telling them instead of what actually happened--makes it harder to talk to and work with people.

Better to engage on a level of accepting individual experiences, and then collaborating with the folks involved to come up with a story that works for everyone, that accommodates the fact that different perspectives experience different things, but the end result is that you all agree on a resolution with which all stories may end collaboratively.

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