My favorite subject during my Neuropsychology study was the subject of “consciousness.” I remember when I flipped through the pages of the book, and told the teacher who was going to teach the course that this would be my favorite subject, she almost rolled her eyes. She must have thought: ‘That’s what you think now!’ Later I learned that most students hated this course and often had to retake the exams. Even the professor who gave the lectures said: “I have not smoked enough pot in my life to understand this!” My face crumpled in a look of utter confusion and I thought: “How do you not get this?’’
As it turns out, I am really good at complex and super complicated subjects! On the other hand, I somehow manage to suck at simple things, or, as I always say to my husband: “If you ask me to look to the right there’s a 50% chance that I do it right the first time.’’ But dare to ask me a question about the brain or gravity, then you’ll get a 45 minutes lecture that leaves you with a headache and 10 more questions. That is why I wrote this piece in 15 minutes, and then went back and forth for 45 minutes to check whether all the “rights” and “lefts” were correct. Also, I had to disturb my husband once again so he could check if I made any mistakes in left/right. Sigh …
So here comes a very bizarre and abstract article; I hope you enjoy it as I always do. And know, if you can implement this material, it will change your life!
I once read the line, “Depression is a liar.” And while I have to admit that the scientific community is not really sure what depression is and why it exists, I still found this statement remarkable. Depression is definitely a liar, but so is anxiety! And obsessive behavior … and addiction … and now that I think of it, trauma is too … “Wait a minute,” I thought, “our brain is a liar, how sneaky!”
The brain of a depressed person convinces him of dark things, the brain of a person with anxiety disorders convinces a person of danger, the brain of an addict makes them believe that they can stop whenever they want and that anyone who sees something else is exaggerating. Does this make our brain bad? Does it work against us? Certainly not!
The brain is a complicated system that works to protect us. Think of it as a machine. It does what it’s supposed to do; it’s programmed a certain way. But it must be managed effectively to do its job properly. If you don’t, it will carry out its work in a way that is anything but effective. As a matter of fact, it will probably sabotage you. Your brain is continuously being filled with information that drives the program; either you are consciously working on it and using it, or you let the environment do it for you, and I can tell you your environment is probably not really thinking hard about what is good for you. An example is the recent Facebook scandal that was about its algorithm preferring misinformation and hatred because it attracts more people to their site. The area around your forehead contains the most complex and advanced system of our brain: the prefrontal cortex, also known as the frontal lobe. I will now do my very best not to go into this too much, because I would love to write 4, 5 or 200 articles about the prefrontal cortex, but I will spare you for now. The prefrontal cortex deals with all the complex tasks such as: planning ahead, interpreting social and cognitive input, setting goals, emotion regulation, etc. We also call these “executive functions”. The easiest way to get a picture of executive functions is to realize that animals and children have this to a very limited extent. It is difficult for a monkey to write out a plan for the future, and it is very difficult for a child to suppress his anger or grief.
Because interpreting situations is also an executive function, the prefrontal cortex always looks for explanations. An example of this is people who, when trying to fall asleep, worry all the time or even see fearful scenarios before their eyes. Or a person who keeps saying, “I feel like something bad is going to happen!” Such people often have physical (and/or mental) stress. They are overworked, have trauma stored in their body (I’ll write an article on this another time) or have a hormone abnormality that causes their body to produce too many stress hormones. Your prefrontal cortex feels this physical stress: it observes the shallow breathing, the slightly higher than usual heart rate, the tension in the muscles and it thinks: “There must be danger, I have to find it!”. And then, it will find something that could be the cause. At least… it thinks it found something, but actually it made something up. So there you lie on your pillow, you want to briefly go over your plans for the next day in your head: “Take children to school, run some errands …” and before you know it, your prefrontal cortex interferes and this schedule turns into a horror movie: “What if you are attacked? What if someone grabs your son from the schoolyard tomorrow? What if you are robbed while shopping or someone in the neighborhood commits an attack? I feel danger coming!”
I’m going to make a little leap to another subject for a minute and bring it all together later. The left and right brain are connected by a construction also called “corpus callosum”. This is sometimes cut in people with epilepsy. In this way, the excessive electrical impulses are kept from overflowing the whole brain with over activity. Thus the epileptic seizures were contained, as they had no ‘bridge’ that they could travel through from the left to right brain.
This procedure has taught us a lot about the brain. Namely, that information travels along this corpus callosum between the two hemispheres, and that’s how they communicate with each other. The split brain phenomenon is one of the most bizarre things out there. I would definitely advise you to watch some videos about it. Because, what do you think happened to patients with such a split brain? The two halves could no longer communicate with each other, and so they started to lead their own life separately. For example, believe it or not, a person could make a choice with his right hand, which would then be rejected by his left hand. Can you imagine!? You take a bottle of Coke from the fridge with your right hand and your left interferes: “Don’t think so, son! You’re on a diet!” and then quickly grabs a bottle of water. How incredible! People with a split brain can also do everything with two hands simultaneously, like making a drawing with both hands separately at the same time.
The language center is located in your left brain, it controls the right side of your body. Do this for me, so you can easily follow the piece: raise your right hand and open and close it a few times. This hand is connected to the speaking brain, it is on the left side of your head but controls this right hand. Your right hemisphere controls the left side and it is silent. The silent brain cannot conceptualize its thoughts and knowledge into language, but it can understand and comprehend. So suppose you place a number of objects on a split-brain person, as in the video at the bottom of the reading tips, and you place a text on the left (in front of his silent right-brain half) with the instruction: ”Take the blue block and pass it to the right hand (so the talking left brain)’’ and then you place a text on the right with the question ‘’Why did you take the blue block?” and the person might answer: “Because, blue is my favorite color!” In normal brains, both hemispheres communicate. So the reason this person is giving a wrong answer is because they didn’t get the information from the silent right brain, so the prefrontal cortex jumps in to make an explanation.
This is also called confabulation, technically it is not a lie, but (part of) the brain filling in gaps of information with its own interpretation. This is especially known in people with Alzheimer’s or extremely poor memory; after all, their brains are trying to make a logical story out of life, just like ours do. They don’t have a split brain, but the prefrontal cortex will still just interpret what the missing information is.
Back to the prefrontal cortex. Some simple facts:
– This is the part of our brain that we lie with.
– And it is also the part that chooses between the lie, the truth or something in between.
– Lying takes more brain activity than speaking the truth. Do you lie a lot? Then you train your prefrontal cortex and it will decide to choose a lie more often.
– Brain stimulation of this area strengthens the human ability to lie and deceive.
– People with dysfunction or damage to their prefrontal cortex cannot lie and lack the ability to even understand sarcasm. That makes sense, because when you think about it, this is really just jokingly saying something that is not true.
I can imagine by now you are probably thinking: okay…. where exactly are you going with this? I’ll simply explain that to you: our brain lies to us without us being aware of it. You don’t have to have a split brain for that to happen. However, this phenomenon has made it clearer to us that it does fabricate a lot. If you cannot find an explanation for something, your prefrontal cortex looks for one. When you answer questions in a conversation, the speaking left brain is likely to answer, even though your silent brain knows, understands and feels a lot more.
All of the clients I talk to, all of them, live in denial to some degree, without being aware of it. Literally any person can be a victim of this, but why did I say clients then? Because I only play the role of a psychologist when I work. If I’m not working, then I just communicate with people casually and really don’t try to read in between the lines. That is almost a top sport. As a therapist, during 1:1 sessions, that is the only place where I dig deep into the soul, search the meaning behind your words, analyze what your actions point to against your words and everything is deliberately questioned (this does not mean I don’t trust you). So I can only say this off those people, and of course, I speak on my own behalf. Because my brain has often lied to me as well, how sneaky (again)!
So how do you fix this? A simple tip: do not answer immediately. Pause for a moment. Let the question circulate and let your left and right hemispheres argue with each other, then listen to your gut. Deep down you know the truth is, because that is, however cliche it may sound, in your heart.
Tip number two: be introspective. Regularly choose moments to reflect and look inside. Your body is a very good messenger for this: where do you feel stress and tension? Where do you feel pain? Do you have an anxious gut feeling or a heavy chest? What’s going on in your head? Etc. I normally plan a fixed day a week for this myself, and then write out everything + goals to work on. But right now with the pandemic, having my kids around me for every second of the day, which is a nightmare (I’m kidding, lol, no I’m not, s.o.s, send help pls), I am blessed if I find a minute to do that.
The final tip, and this is not so simple, is: “Say the truth, or at least don’t lie.” This is one of my favorite sayings from a Professor in psychology. The explanation of this, in his words: “If you don’t tell the truth, or if you lie, you corrupt the instinctual mechanisms that manifest themselves as meaning. So the fundamental reason to not lie is because you corrupt your own perceptions.“
In other words, be honest in your language, in your actions, and in your feelings. The more honest you are, the more your brain’s ability to confabulate (lie) dies out. Be brave by being honest with yourself about your inner pain. Because when you lie to yourself, your brain learns to lie back to you. And when it does, it keeps you from growing, because it hides the problems. It makes the world scary, ugly, and unjust. It keeps you from loving relationships and emotional intimacy. It keeps you away from what is meaningful in your life, and shackles you to a superficial life of reacting instead of anticipating and acting consciously. If your brain is a liar … then you can only be surviving instead of truly living.
One client once said, “I hated having to tell my story over and over each time (I was their 20th or something therapist, and their last: yay!) I hate having to be this vulnerable time and time again. But that is a sacrifice that I make consciously, because this is the price of a happy, wise, rich and loving life.” What wisdom! No wonder they are thriving right now, in each section of their lives!
What most people need for this brave kind of honesty is a safe, unbiased (listening) space. Are you wondering who can provide that for you? Are you in need of this, but no one comes to mind? Find me here.
Want to learn more about this topic? Here are my tips:
Video: You are two – CGP Gray (!)
Book: Thou Shalt Not Notice – Alice Miller
Book: The body keeps the score – Dr. Bessel van der Kolk (!)
Article: The art of lying – Scientific American