Constructing the Preferred Narrative of our Lives

I want to extend my previous point on thinking about events, while I’m experiencing them, in the context of how I will describe them to others.

My broader theory, now, is that I don’t do the play-by-play in my head just to describe it on my blog, I do it to memorialize the experience in my memory so I can describe it to myself in the future. Each time we recall a memory, we change it ever so slightly to fit the "preferred narrative" of our lives. In fact, this is a critical element of self-deception. We experience an event and when we commit it to memory we smooth out the edges, embellish, simplify….all in the pursuit of crafting our "life story," an exercise that connects all the dots in our life as if they were the result of conscious choices instead of life’s randomness.

If we agree that self-deception is important for happiness, I don’t think mentally modifying the experience as it happens is a totally bad thing.

Constructing the preferred narrative of our lives is indeed integral to the American tradition. By forgetting our failures, by looking toward the future with blithe optimism, by ignoring history to an extent, we have the luxury of the permanent fresh start and the opportunity to reinvent ourselves each day.

2 comments on “Constructing the Preferred Narrative of our Lives
  • I’d have to disagree with you when you say that interpreting messages in this way is a form of delusion or self-deception. Nothing is completely objective when it comes to our experiences and there is a very high level of interpretation to everything.

    I think you reach a point where you have to realize that the truth is more something we have agreed upon rather than reality itself. Who is to say that casting everything in a light that completely balances positive and negative is any more accurate. Perhaps self-deception isn’t just in the domain of the optimists but anyone who is human.

  • Ben:

    A brilliant post. (My apologies for having dropped off the map for the last month — I was on a fierce deadline for a piece that will be coming out in Wired next week called “Don’t Try This at Home,” in the “Raves” issue after the Al Gore issue.)

    One primary reason why the stories we tell ourselves about our own experiences are so important is that they not only influence our memories of the events, they influence *our initial perception* of them. In other words, ideas construct perception. One of the most earthshaking neurological discoveries in recent years is that there are more “top-down” fibers connected to our sense organs than “bottom-up” ones; in other words, our brains are constantly guiding, censoring, and determining perception, as well as learning from incoming data. This is called “top-down processing.”

    I’m not sure if you can read this link, but it’s just one of many fascinating articles that have come out in recent years on this subject. (“This is Your Brain Under Hypnosis,” by Sandra Blakelee, NYT 11/22/05.)

    I have found this very thought provoking in my own life. For instance, I notice that people who tend to think of themselves as failures in a certain realm often have a much darker view of an event related to that realm than I did, even if I was standing right next to the person when we both went through the experience. Then, of course, the “new” darker experience just reinforces the person’s idea that they will never be able to succeed in that realm, because “the game is rigged” or “no one finds me attractive” or “people can’t be trusted,” etc. etc. etc.

    The poet-physician William Carlos Williams once wrote, “A new world is only a new mind.” This seems to be true even at the neurological level.

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