On the Fallibility of the Mind… and How You Can Exploit It For Your Own Gain

Fake news and alternative facts are terms we’ve all grown sick of hearing by now, I’m sure. The current state of American politics aside, history is filled with examples that tragically illustrate how lies told boldly, often enough, are believed by many.

“We tend to think of memories as perfect little time capsules—important records of past events that matter to us and made us who we are, as unchangeable as a dragonfly stuck in amber,” says Dr. Julia Shaw. And she’s right. Yet, how often do we check the accuracy of our memories? How often do we check the accuracy of our beliefs? And how often to we examine the way our memories shape our beliefs?

The idea that the brain is fallible, that memories don’t always correlate with reality, can be difficult. Yet it explains how otherwise intelligent people believe lies and, in fact, base the way they live their lives on those lies. Some join cults, some live in paranoia because of conspiracy theories with little or no validity, some live in mediocrity and misery because they refuse to believe in their own abilities and talents.

Jesus said in John 8:31 and 32: “If you continue in My Word, you are truly My diciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Of course, this passage usually gets condensed to “The truth will set you free,” which misses a lot of what Jesus actually said. Truth can’t set you free if you don’t know it, and in a world so saturated by lies and deception, how can one find actual truth?

This isn’t a new question. It goes back almost two and a half millennia, before Christ, illustrated by Plato’s cave analogy:

Fast forward to today, in an age when information is abundant and most of us have phones with mobile data access in our pocket and voice assistance that can search for answers to any question we may have. Why, then, would truth be an issue today?

Because we must know the truth. Not only that, we must take time to seek it out and learn how to recognize it when we see it. And, once we find it, we must accept it.

Sometimes truth is ugly. Sometimes truth hurts. Sometimes the truth is that our ego leads us to believe things that aren’t true in order make us feel special. That’s how cults of all kinds grow. Sometimes we get so invested in untruths that we fall victim to the sunk cost fallacy, thinking that we must stay committed to the lies because we’ve invested so much time and effort and make such a big deal about our belief in them.

See, it’s not enough to want truth or freedom. As Epictetus said, “If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.” And, as Ravi Zacharias said in his update to Walter Martin’s rather pointed examination of non-Christian religious belief systems, THE KINGDOM OF THE CULTS, one does not discover new truth that supersedes hundreds or thousands of years of scholarly thinking in by spending a few minutes searching on Google. Yet people think they do just that, every day.

We’ve all heard the computer programming acronym GARBAGE IN = GARBAGE OUT. The same is true for our mind. In fact, according to Lisa Cron’s book WIRED FOR STORY, the subconscious mind gets so wrapped up in a good story that it can’t tell the difference between make-believe and reality; in other words, stories shape our world. If you notice, marketers and advertisers are really latching on to the power of story to sell products and brands. So, too, are people with more nefarious intent.

That’s why it’s important to guard your mind, to carefully choose what you put in it and what story you’re telling yourself. I submit this not so much as a cautionary tale of the mind’s fallibility, but as an indication of how it’s possible to elevate and change. As Vice’s profile of Julia Shaw’s memory research concluded:

So, if our memories are so easy to manipulate, and constantly in flux, pulling in new details and dropping others, is anything we remember really a true record of the past?

“I think that reality is purely your perception. And it’s a completely personal experience. The world as you know it only exists to you, [as you are] right now. Every day you wake up a new person,” with a different brain, and a different set of memories to guide you.

“I like to say that all memories are essentially false,” Shaw said. “They’re either a little bit false, or entirely false. There are entire experiences that never happened.”

Which means, we can write a new story. We can choose how we feed our mind. We can choose to find sources of truth and encouragement, of success and joy, and make those things the story our mind believes. And, every day, we can wake up a little better than we did the day before.

The key to this is truth. It’s not about fake it ’til you make it. It’s about recognizing the truth that you can improve your life, you can change yourself, you can overcome enormous obstacles. Those are truths you need to feed yourself. Rewrite the story of your life in such a way that you overcome.

Will it take work? Yes. Is this a quick-fix? No. But it’s work well worth doing.

Also published on Medium.