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Non-Fiction Self-Help

Who You Going to Believe – You or Your Lying Brain?

Countries where someone has read my blog

I’m going to let you in on a secret. The reason I can claim over 11,000 views on my blog this year is because husband Bill – God bless him! – stacks the deck by running up my numbers. Come on! What are the odds that some person reads over twenty essays every morning before 7:30? 

It’s not all fake. People from over forty countries have logged on. Also, referrals from FaceBook and Twitter, as Bill doesn’t do Social Media. I give him a knowing wink from time to time. He always says, “I have no idea what you are talking about.” I drop the issue.

As Shakar Vedantam and Bill Mesler say in Useful Delusions: The Power and Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain, “The dance of complicity between deception and self-deception often works best when neither party acknowledges it.”

Shankar Vedantam Photo by Douglas Sonders/NPR

Vedantam hosts The Hidden Brain podcast. Each episode highlights a topic at the intersection of psychology and culture. It shows how, “In the Heat of the Moment,” we might do things we despise in theory. It describes how removing “Obstacles You Don’t See” is as important as conscious effort toward achieving a goal. “Stage Fright” explains how and why we choke under pressure. You can tell, I am a fan.

Bill Mesler (his website)

Vedantam’s co-author, Bill Mesler, is a journalist who, according to his website, “is interested in what we believe but even more interested in why we believe it.” He believes his cats are ungrateful.

FaceBook meme

This book makes you think. It also challenges how you think. Useful Delusions refer to the untruths we all hold, and hold dearly, because they help us survive as individuals, families, communities, nations. Other words for untruths would be pleasantries, stories, myths, FaceBook memes, tenets, and even the spiels of con men and women. 

But, there’s a significant twist. Vedantam and Mesler posit that human brains, for physiologic and evolutionary reasons, can only absorb and process a small slice of reality. The kicker is that our brains are geared to believe that we are seeing the whole of it. The self-deception is not necessarily intentional, but it’s baked in. 

So, we think we grasp the whole picture, when, in reality, we can’t. At the same time, within that sliver of reality, we want the facts to line up – to tell a story that will help us feel better or function better. Every time, “if sacrificing the facts can ease the unpleasant feeling [of dealing with contradictory information], the facts turn out to be expendable.” (Italics mine.) Humans do not like cognitive dissonance.

The authors give examples of our acceptance of untruths in all areas of life, big and small. 

  • Interactions with loved ones. Bill: Did you know the University of Missouri has a 7’3” player? My thoughts: Who cares? My words: Wow! So cool!  
  • The placebo effect. A 2002 paper showed that people who had sham knee surgery improved as much as those who got real knee procedures! My response as a physician at the time was that knee surgery was worthless, not that placebo was worth it.
  • National narratives. Churchill: “We shall fight on the beaches … We will never surrender.” Would the Brits really have done that? We only have Churchill’s word – or words – for it. 
  • Even religions. To quote the book: “If the [religious] stories have resonance and power, does it really matter if they are true?”

This book is hard to embrace, especially in this time when we are all annoyed by people whose ideas we deem irrational. Of course, our own ideas are sane and well-reasoned. This book pounds on the fact that we, with our human brains, all share the bent to value narrative over truth. It slants every aspect of life, like being born with original sin. 

It’s a complex theory, but Useful Delusions is copiously documented. About twenty percent of this book is commentary and bibliography.

I’d like to elaborate on a couple of evergreen topics that the book raises: death and love. 

Humans are the only species that knows it’s going to die. Those “who could avoid existential dread by employing denial, illusion and self-deception – who weren’t … paralyzed by the constant fear of death – had an evolutionary advantage over humans who could see reality clearly.” 

So, we fool ourselves. Everyone dies, but it’s never our turn! Or as I wrote in “Good Grief,” a discussion of Lincoln in the Bardo, “I try to imagine my non-existence, but it never lasts. I am always the star of my own show.”  

Ad in St. Louis Post-Dispatch 1/2/2022

We buy into self-deceptive ways to prolong life: potions, elixirs, Prevagen! We subscribe to resurrection. We believe in an immortal soul. We build monuments to leave a memory. We try to control our children after death by provisions in our wills. My son, Alex, disabused me of the point of that. He was about ten. I said, “I don’t want you to waste your inheritance on a Lamborghini.” He replied, “You won’t care, Mom. You’ll be dead.” 

The chapter about love is called, “The Heart Has Its Reasons.” The authors discuss studies that explain why we go to the great lengths we do for those we love. You could say that, for children and grandchildren, we benefit by passing our genes along. But what about our attachment to – and the love we lavish on – our pets? Sorry, folks, it’s a delusion that they are family.

I would do ANYTHING for these guys: my grandsons
And for her, too! Lily

In my own heart, I have an uneasiness I haven’t been able to settle for some years. How should I think and feel about people whom I care about, but who are abusive to me? As a doctor and a writer, I want to believe that everyone is redeemable, that everyone can change. Yet, I have had hard experience to the contrary. Psychiatrist friends have advised me that these people will never change. Having read Useful Delusions, I think maybe I can hold both views. 

In the epilogue, Vedantam and Mesler talk about climate change as the global existential challenge. They quote Economics Nobelist Danny Kahneman: [Getting people to take climate change seriously], is “not going to happen by presenting more evidence. That, I think, is clear.” Kahneman says, “For me, it would be a milestone if you manage to take influential evangelists, preachers, to adopt the idea of global warming and to preach it. That would change things.”

Of course, this is something we writers always knew, no matter the size of our readership. As Richard Powers says in The Overstory, his glorious novel about our connection to Nature, “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” Even if it’s a work of fiction. 

Tell me: What delusions do you hold dear? 

By Cathy Luh

I am a doctor, a writer and Grammy to Edin and Caleb. I live in St. Louis with husband Bill.

5 replies on “Who You Going to Believe – You or Your Lying Brain?”

Perhaps it’s my summary that doesn’t do the book justice. They talk about how someone having options due to money, say, or community, can more afford to lose their delusions. Probably my bad, but I only had 1000 words.

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It seems these authors engage in a practice that is irksome to me as a behavioral psychologist, that is to neurologize their explanation of behavior. It’s as if The Brain is an inner puppeteer pulling the strings of the outer person. This can lead to ignoring the social and other environmental contingencies that shape and maintain ‘delusional’ behavior. Perhaps this is my delusion. But I can point to educational and other social contingencies that have made it a useful one. BTW if you enjoyed Powers’ Overstory (which I did), you may like his latest, Bewilderment. It is a Pulitzer Prize winner in, I would guess, the Category of Poignancy.

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Enjoyed this blog immensely. In one person’s psychoanalytic theory (Daniel Stern?), he talks about the developing child’s need for a space between reality and unreality that we call play. In this area, the child is allowed to “make believe” and the adults agree not to destroy those beliefs unless they are harmful to the child. It is from this area that things like art, creativity, religion, lucky talismen and other magical thinking springs. I always thought we needed it to exist so that we can tolerate the overwhelmingness of how powerless we really are. It is interesting to think it might be hardwired to a certain extent. Good stuff.

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