confabulations

In the first chapter of The Happiness Hypothesis, Haidt writes about the first epileptic patients who, in the 1960s, underwent “split-brain” surgery in hopes of mitigating their seizures. While effective for that purpose, researchers soon discovered problems with hemispherical independence. What was particularly interesting to me was this bit on confabulation:

Confabulation is so frequent in work with split-brain patients and other people suffering brain damage that Gazzaniga refers to the language centers on the left side of the brain as the interpreter module, whose job is to give a running commentary on whatever the self is doing, even though the interpreter module has no access to the real causes or motives of the self’s behavior. For example, if the word “walk” is flashed to the right hemisphere, the patient might stand up and walk away. When asked why he is getting up, he might say, “I’m going to get a Coke.” The interpreter module is good at making up explanations, but not at knowing that it has done so.

While not quite the same thing, I’d been talking to my therapist the night before about how people (myself included, obv) intellectualize away insecurities, and thought the coincidence pretty charming. While some people, like conservative homophobes who solicit sex in gas station restrooms, may be painfully aware of the motivations for their blaring hypocrisy, some insecurities are quietly inveterate enough to literally feel like the interpreter module is good at making up explanations, but not at knowing that it has done so.

Because one’s self-concept is borne out of the language center of the brain, there is huge incentive to write pretty words rather than the ugly truth. What we choose to include in our “personal narratives” is a map of where we’ve been and where we hope to go; it gives us purpose, a sense of identity, the strength to keep on keeping on. The idea of personal identity and narrative is especially exacerbated now that social media gives us a platform to present our “best life” to the world, as well as a backstage to curate its content. But both our digital veneers and internal monologues are just confabulations; they are illusions that we can rewrite them at any time.

Unfortunately, if we’re not truthful to or forgiving of ourselves, these illusions can steam-roll over needs and fears that we were too ashamed to put into words. It’s much easier to say, “I’m going to get a Coke”, than wondering why you just took 10,000 selfies to post just one. But these are things we’ll inevitably need to reckon with if we’re to have healthy relationships with ourselves and others.

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