They say that the left brain is for language and logic, and the right brain is for creativity.
That’s a bit simplistic because the left and right brains are connected. They talk with each other.
Unless, of course, you have had split brain surgery.
Some epilepsy sufferers who have severe grand mal seizures undergo split brain surgery. It severs the connection between left brain and right.
In the 60s, a psychology researcher called Michael Gazzaniga did some tests with split brain patients.
He wondered what would happen if he could introduce ideas to the right brain only.
What would the left brain, the interpreter part, make of it?
He wanted to isolate the role of the narrating part of the brain. The part that makes sense of things for us – the storyteller.
The brain is wired up funny. The right brain connects to the left side, not the right. And vice versa.
So Gazzaniga and his team would show pictures and videos to the person’s left eye only, knowing that only the right brain would receive them.
The right brain has no speech making abilities. So it could not form words to let the person know what they had just seen.
And the split brain surgery meant the information could not be shared with the left brain in the usual way.
Because of this, when they showed the person a picture, they would deny having seen that picture at all.
One woman was shown a scary film this way. She didn’t register seeing the film at all. But she did register a feeling of fear.
The researchers asked why that might be. She said she wasn’t sure.
But her left brain tried to make sense of it anyhow.
She said she didn’t like the room. She even took a dislike to the researcher.
“It’s you. You’re making me nervous!”
The left brain felt the fear and scanned the room to find an explanation.
It was wrong of course. But it found a story. She then took that as truth. Even though it wasn’t.
This was a typical response. The researchers found that the left brain seeks explanations or causes.
But, as they put it, “the first ‘makes-sense’ explanation will do.”
Our brains are not Truth Machines in the way that we think they are.
Instead, they are just Story Machines.
Its job is not to find the truth or tell the truth.
Its job is simply to find a story for what is happening for us, yet it does so with a “that’ll do” rigour.
Once it finds something that kind of makes sense, that’s the explanation it settles on.
It’s not trying to give you the truth. It just wants you to shut up with your questions.
One man was shown a sign saying Walk. He didn’t know he’d seen this sign. But he obeyed anyhow.
When asked why he was walking, he noticed that he was headed in the direction of the kitchen. So he said he was thirsty.
This wasn’t the truth. But his left brain made up the thirst story anyhow.
It’ll do. And that’s enough.
It stopped the man puzzling as to why he was suddenly walking about. Job done.
The split brain patients are not unusual in this regard. We all make up these stories in the same “that’ll do” way.
The stories allow us to quickly make sense of a confusing world, but they’re not the truth.
They are just the first “that’ll do” explanation that solved our confusion.
We hold onto these stories, often for a lifetime. Our minds created some of these stories when we were very small.
We attach to them as fact ever since.
“Why am I on my own?” asks an only child.
“Because you’re not likeable” says one story telling brain.
“Because you’re special” says another.
The storytelling part found a “that’ll do” answer that allowed it to move on.
And now you have a story you’re attached to.
Our brain continues to invent these lazy stories right through life.
What are you up to and why?
Your brain will come up with an answer. It’s unlikely to be true. After all, it isn’t trying to be true.
It’s just trying to find an answer that stops you asking the question.
As these “that’ll do” stories thicken through life, the brain ignores new information that challenges the story.
The person who attaches to the story of “I’m not likeable”, dismisses all signs that they are.
Even when someone asks to spend time with them, they instead get suspicious. “Hmmm, what’s their game?”
Studies of political viewpoint change show this too.
Once we have made up our minds on an issue, telling us a fact that counters that opinion has a strange effect.
It doesn’t shake our view, as one might expect it to. It entrenches it.
The lazy “that’ll do” storyteller is saying: “Hey! I’ve answered this question already. Stop trying to make me answer it again.”
And so we attach to these stories, even if they’re a million miles away from truth.
This fits with the APET model idea, developed by Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell.
Whereas cognitive therapy argued that thoughts lead to emotions, Griffin and Tyrrell say it is the other way around.
APET says that first there is an activating stimulus (A). In the case of the experiment it was the scary film.
Then the lizard brain within us pattern matches (P) it for danger or safety. The film in the experiment was of people trapped in a fire. So the lizard brain yells “danger.”
Then we feel the emotion (E) that a sense of “danger” triggers, and the bodily sensations that go with it.
Then we find a thought (T) to make sense of it all.
Just as the woman who saw the scary film first felt the emotion, then built a thought story later to explain it.
Of course, her thought story was false. But it did at least stop her wondering why she was frightened. And, as far as the brain is concerned, that’ll do.
This has implications for how we conduct therapy. So much of therapy looks for “the cause”. It seeks out explanations for why we feel the way we do.
After all, if we find “the cause” we can fix it, or so the theory goes.
That makes sense in the mechanical world. But we are not robots.
This research, confirmed by advances in neuroscience, tells us that the stories we create as explanations are likely to be false.
Gazzaniga argued that “listening to people’s explanations for their actions is interesting but often a waste of time.”
Yet people are often in therapy for years (some for decades) relentless recounting these “causes”, yet making little progress.
They are encouraged to look backwards into confabulation, rather than forwards into change.
When we look forwards to describe what we want, we are much more likely to be working with the truth.
When we look backwards asking “why?” we are digging up causes that probably aren’t. Then spending years trying to fix the wrong thing.
The science says that we are recounting “that’ll do” stories from long ago. So fixing these “causes”, if that were even possible, won’t necessarily fix anything that will help.
The idea that we get better by dealing with causes starts to look shaky, if those causes are not the causes at all.
Far better then to build change in the present towards the truth of what you want. At least then we are working with reality.
The stories we have about ourselves are not truth. They were just an efficient way for our brains to have us stop us asking the questions.
It is helpful to know this if your story is getting in your way. It loses its authority. You can build a different story that serves you.
It is helpful too if you are lost in the muddle of trying to figure out why you are feeling how you are.
Being lost feels hopeless. But it’s not surprising that you are making no headway amongst the so-called causes. Chances are that you are looking in the wrong place.
Better to spend energy figuring out what you want tomorrow that is different to today.
Everything else takes you deeper into a land of make believe.
Change is tomorrow. Focus on what you want and start moving towards it. Everything else is just a story.Alun Parry is Director of The Liverpool Psychotherapy Practice