In the absence of data, our human brains make up stories.
We use information stored away from our experiences to manufacture narratives about why the store cashier is behaving a certain way or why a colleague is unusually quiet.
Often, the stories we make up in our heads contain fragments of other stories that we’ve read, heard or told. That pattern recognition — “this is just like that!” — can be a kind of magical discovery, like unlocking a secret.
Sometimes that recognition is insight and a path to truth. Other times it’s a false prophet. In the excitement of discovery (dopamine rush), it is often hard to decipher one from the other.
It’s a survival skill, our story-writing. The stories we tell ourselves, in our minds, inform our decisions and behavior. We use them both for protection and connection.
A vibrant example of protective, connective storytelling is the film Life is Beautiful, the tale of father who uses storytelling to protect his son while they are imprisoned in a concentration camp. The film was inspired, in part, by Rubino Romeo Salmoni’s, In the End, I Beat Hitler.
Reception of, and reaction to, that film is a story of its own. For example, critics argue(d) against the very idea that anything “beautiful” could come from the horrific tragedy of the Holocaust.
A story about a story about a story, the original fragments of which were data points in a real man’s life.
In the absence of data, our minds make up stories, and doing that is completely normal.
But they’re exactly that: stories.
Telling our own stories, about our personal experiences, feelings, and beliefs, is one way of inviting other people into our worlds. How honest or dishonest we are when telling our stories is up to us.
When we tell stories that are our personal interpretations of the world, of other people’s behaviors or assumed intents, we are offering hypotheses. The only way of knowing what another person is feeling or what experience might be behind their outward behavior is to ask them. If asking the other person directly isn’t an available option, then our brains will likely do what they do and manufacture a story to fill the void.
In that process, we get to choose the story we fill in and feed, remembering that the grass is greener where we water it.
We also get to choose whether or not to share that made-up story with anyone else, whether that’s a partner, a neighbor, or an audience of strangers on social media.
We get to choose.
So why not practice making them good stories about healing, safety, and love, especially now. Practice making them stories that our tender hearts long to hear.
May they be so.
And when the inner narrator spins a darker, grimmer version: Rewrite it.
For more reading, if your wandering mind needs that kind of settling down:
The Practice of Story Stewardship (Brené Brown, December 2021)
Our Brains Tell Us Stories So We Can Live (Nautilus, 2019)
How Stories Protect and Persuade Us (NPR, April 2020)