Understanding that our experience of the world is a “useful fiction” can open us up for major shifts in how we operate in the world, especially in our interpersonal world. To the extent that we have been fooled by our intuitive realness, our mode of communication is more likely to be debate-oriented. Debate is oppositional (e.g., my truth versus your truth, I’m right, you’re wrong). Since we believe our view of the world to be the truth, it will feel very confusing and threatening to have it challenged.
Our reality generating minds are meaning makers. We are always doing this and generally notice it only when something anomalous happens that doesn’t make sense — even then our mind has probably already come up with a pretty good story. The extreme example of “split brain” patients helps to demonstrate this. Split brain is a term to describe patients who have had a corpus callostomy to manage a severe seizure disorder. The corpos callosum is the connection between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. This extreme procedure is like creating a firebreak, in that it prevents a seizure from spreading throughout the whole brain. Since our two hemispheres are cross connected with our bodies and visual fields, information presented to the left visual field goes to the right hemisphere and vice versa with the right visual field. Since the speech controls are usually in the left hemisphere, this means that if something is presented to the right hemisphere the patient cannot say what they saw, but they can draw a picture or make a selection with their left hand which is controlled by the right hemisphere. Research on patients who have had this procedure has revealed some interesting phenomena. After being presented with an image to the right hemisphere subjects may be asked why they made the selection or drew the picture. Interestingly, they don’t plead ignorance, rather they confabulate a response.
While most of us have our two hemispheres connected, we are regularly faced with our behavior that has unconscious origins, as well as the behavior of others. Like the split brain patients, we too fabricate our useful fictions to explain our actions and those of the people around us. Usually these stories are close enough to the mark that we feel no need to question them, but question them we should. We are shaped more by the stories we weave than the truth. Realizing this opens us to a much better communication alternative than debate. If we can begin to share our stories, knowing that they are just stories, we can collaborate, rather than oppose, dialogue rather than debate. Think of what the five men and the elephant could have discovered through dialogue!
John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.