One of my favorite topics for a team building session or a leadership class is “interpersonal mush,” Gervase Bush’s label for what happens when we create stories to explain what our teammates are doing and why, and then fail to check out the accuracy of our stories. As sense-making creatures, Bush says, we cannot help but try and fill in the gaps in our knowledge to create a coherent story about the things we see going on around us. The problem comes in when we create a story about a colleague’s actions or intentions and neglect to sit down and talk with that colleague to fact-check our interpretation. I’ve theorized in the past that this is the true source of troublesome office gossip.
This week I started reading Jonathan Gottschall’s excellent book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Gottschall takes on the worthy task of figuring out why the human brain is a natural storyteller, not only when it comes to interpreting the behavior of others, but in nearly every aspect of our lives. We read fiction, we watch movies, we pay more attention in class when the teacher tells a story and we tell stories when we’re trying to make a point—we even tell stories while we’re sleeping, through our dreams. The question is, why? Does it serve a purpose in our evolutionary history?
I haven’t read far enough yet to get an answer to this ultimate question, but Gottschall traces the background of how this storytelling phenomena happens in the first place. The left hemisphere of the brain, which is responsible for tasks such as speaking, thinking and generating hypotheses, has specialized circuitry “that is responsible for making sense of the torrent of information that the brain is always receiving from the environment. The job of this set of neural circuits is to detect order and meaning in that flow, and to organize it into a coherent account of a person’s experience…” In other words, to tell stories. In a series of experiments with patients whose left and right hemispheres had been severed from communication with each other, scientists found that if they fed an image to the right brain, the left brain would fabricate a logical story to explain where this image had come from. The story was completely false, but the subject clearly believed it. As long as the story is logical and coherent enough to form an explanation that the left brain finds plausible, we buy it. Gottschall calls this the “Sherlock Holmes syndrome.”
The Sherlock Holmes syndrome, unfortunately, takes many of us way beyond office politics. It’s responsible for conspiracy theories believed by masses of people, from the theory that the U.S. government was behind the 9/11 attacks (which a 2006 poll found a shocking 36% of Americans believed) all the way up to the paranormal explanations for crop circles and alien abductions and the like. Gottschall says we should be wary of thinking that conspiracy theories are a harmless form of storytelling; take for example the African conspiracy theory that says AIDS is a racist hoax designed to terrify black people into abstinence or condom use and thus to wipe out the race, a theory that is killing lots of Africans. “Bad things do not happen because of a wildly complex swirl of abstract historical and social variables,” Gottschall concludes. “They happen because bad men live to stalk our happiness. And you can fight, and possibly even defeat, bad men. If you can read the hidden story.”
We can’t stop making up stories that explain our experience. But we can question those stories and take steps to check them out. The first step is to understand and accept that our brains work in this manner; the next step is to learn to ask good questions and to actively listen to others. Stay tuned for more.