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The Folly of Examining Life Rationally: The Fantastical Narrative Within Us All

ysilverman's picture

“Reality is merely an illusion, although a very persistent one.”

- Albert Einstein, genius

“How can I be sure that my childhood actually happened? … Basically, I have a number of memories from my childhood that are completely surreal and more or less physically impossible -- which would rationally suggest that I'm remembering dreams -- yet these "memories" are just as real and perfectly vivid as any other memory of my childhood. I'm disturbed by the implications of this.”

- Avenger to human relations, posted on Meta Filter October 23, 2007

“How do we know that what happens to us isn’t good?”

- Amy Hempel, from The Man in Bogota

There is a prevalent idea that the goal in arriving at sound mental health is to achieve some sort of assumption of reality, and that people who are “mentally ill” are somehow lacking in an ability to view the world in a realistic way. Someone who is depressed may be considered unabashedly pessimistic; someone who is schizophrenic has apparently lost touch to an even greater degree. We discuss the world as if there is a correct and an incorrect way to understand things, and argue that those who are mentally unstable need to “get in touch” or “get with the program.” Yet if we begin to consider that every brain constructs and interacts with the world differently, and that each perception of reality is based on an individual’s own engagement with the stimuli that surround them, there becomes less use for the search for reality in the quest towards getting theories about mental health treatment less wrong. Even if there is an empirical reality, we cannot conceive of what that might be separate from the unique sensations we derive from it, and so its existence becomes irrelevant in terms of our own experiential realities, and relatively unimportant in the realm of mental healthcare. In this paper I will first look at the brain’s processing of the world, in order to demonstrate that the idea of a right or correct way of either seeing or experiencing the world is, seemingly, an impossibility. I will then discuss what this means in confluence with mental healthcare, arguing that, in fact, it makes the necessity of thinking purposefully about the constant evolution of personal narratives more, rather than less, important. Armed with the idea that we truly are the authors, both consciously and subconsciously, of our own stories, we can look more seriously into the process of re-imagining the ways in which we strive to tell them.

Our minds play common tricks on us, separate from the question of whether or not there is such a thing as reality. Some of these, like optical illusions, are just accepted, even though they themselves can help prove how much the mind is capable of making up without any direct cues from the outside world, and how much these “fallacies” help us understand what is happening (1). Whereas we think that people who are mentally “sound” are also the most in touch with any sort of empirical reality this is not the case, even if we were to accept the existence of such a reality. In fact, it has been shown that depressed people are more apt to correctly assess the risk of a variety of situation than are their non-depressed counterparts, who are more likely to see the world as an inaccurately safe place (2). Certainly we each remember the same situation differently, and this malleability of memory is striking when we think about what this means in the context of our constructed world. It would seem that in order to correctly understand our place in society, if we were to assume reality, there must be only one set of past events, but this cannot be the case. If we ask the same people to recount a situation they will often recollect it very differently, both because of different perceptions during the course of the event, and because of different memory processing performances afterwards. As Hugo Munsterberg, a famous German applied psychologist with a self-reported fantastic memory for giving lectures, explained:

“LAST summer I had to face a jury as witness in a trial. While I was with my family at the seashore my city house had been burglarised and I was called upon to give an account of my findings against the culprit whom they had caught with a part of the booty. I reported under oath that the burglars had entered through a cellar window, and then described what rooms they had visited. To prove, in answer to a direct question, that they had been there at night, I told that I had found drops of candle wax on the second floor. To show that they intended to return, I reported that they had left a large mantel clock, packed in wrapping paper, on the dining-room table. Finally, as to the amount of clothes which they had taken, I asserted that the burglars did not get more than a specified list which I had given the police. Only a few days later I found that every one of these statements was wrong.” (3)

Whether we realize it or not, our memories cannot be any sort of empirical truth, in that we remember things in a wholly unique way. Some things are known about these processes. For example, we often remember things in ways that allow them to fit into schema we have already established, and that allow them to be easily processed with other things we already know (4). If something seems discordant with our worldview, either personal or global, we are less likely to make it available for recall (5). In one study, each person was shown a number of real childhood photos as well as a fake photo of his or her childhood self in a hot air balloon. Despite the fact that family members asserted this event had never occurred, fifty percent of the individuals shown the pictures vividly remembered the hot air balloon trip, and were able to tell stories about it. Perhaps more interesting in terms of how we construct our world based on “false” memories is from an experiment in which 36% of those tested were convinced they had seen Bugs Bunny, a Warner Brothers Character, in Disney World by showing them a photograph of Bugs at Disney; another event that was patently false in the person’s supposed empirical reality. Afterwards, the people who reported having seen Bugs found him and Mickey Mouse to be more closely related than control subjects did (6). This demonstrates that not only can people integrate many sorts of cues into their narrative memory structures, but that these various “false” memories can have real effects on the ways people think about the world around them.

The way we see our past is crucial in terms of the way we function in the present. And from a very young age, our conception of self helps us determine how we interact and think about ourselves personally and as members of society (7). The way we remember our past is central to the way we think about ourselves in the now and how we see our behavior in the future. There is an undeniable paradigm that our memory of the world helps determine our place in it, and that particularly the way we remember events that include ourselves changes the way we view our significance in the world. It seems that the age from which this concept of a narrative reality based in autobiographical memories begins with some constancy is very early in a child’s life – from as young as one or two (8). So how are we able to merge these two seemingly disjunctive truths about the human mind – that what we remember is critical to our functioning, and yet also based outside of any sort of provable reality?

In any theory of the mind that includes space for a subconscious realm, there becomes room for a life of the mind that is just as significant in our relations with the world as our conscious selves. For Sigmund Freud, this Id-driven unconscious is in fact the center for our conception of self, holding the key to many of our cravings and wants, even though it has no direct connection to our superego or conscious self (9). In the bipartite brain model, our tacit selves interact with the world, and with each other, and with our storyteller or conscious self, and no one interaction holds the key to all the others (10). In both stories of the mind, there is a story of cognitive functions that do not directly interact with any empirical reality outside of the mind, and so each sensory event that occurs is processed in a plethora of ways within the mind, as are events that occur only in the mind, and so both can end up becoming significant in the development of the psyche. There is no one central modality for the integration of thought and memory, so there is plenty of space for each to speak to the other, creating room for both mystery and revision.

Freud changed the way we think of the mind when he rejected the seduction theory, arguing that neuroses and psychoses emerged not as a result of real childhood molestations at the hands of parents or adult figures, but instead because of imagined events of these sorts (11). In fact, this revelation is both a cornerstone of contemporary psychology, and yet also a topic that has been almost continuously debated since Freud’s time. There are two aspects to the debate that are critical to the discussion of the importance of reality in working towards mental health, and the first is simply whether or not it is possible for an imagined sexual experience with a parent – or any event, traumatic or positive – to have the same role in the psyche as an empirically factual event, in whichever way ones chooses to conceive of such. The second is whether or not any events – “real” or “imagined” – can have absolute values, or whether, unprocessed, such events hold no empirical significance. In Janet Malcolm’s In the Freud Archives Dr. Jeffrey Masson, himself a trained Freudian analyst, breaks with the analytic community over his assertion that Freud’s rejection of the crucial seduction theory, which linked reality to disturbance, was discarded more for social than for intellectually honest reasons. But what is most troubling to him is an argument with other analysts in which they assert that the Holocaust, for some, could have been a positive and strengthening experience (12). For Masson, and he is not alone, there are certain occurrences that cannot be valueless, and no individual psyche can stand to gain from certain horrific events. But, in a sense, the idea that there is no reality, only sensations and then a construct of the world around us, moves us away from traditional thoughts of mental illness and reality checking and towards a view that allows for individuation in a person’s experience. It means that to successfully engage in the world, it may be more important to work on establishing narrative significance within one’s own life than one in agreement with other people’s stories.

As more research is done into the origin of various anxiety patterns it has become clear that there are many factors that go into our individuating behaviors, and so one child who is genetically biased towards emotional arousal and anxiety, and whose parents engage with the world in an anxious way, may experience a socially negative event and end up with a social anxiety disorder or separation anxiety. Another child may experience an apparently identical occurrence, and emerge seemingly unscathed, with no apparently uncomfortable residual effects (13). For Freudian analysts, this fluidity of experience is one of the cornerstones of our mental differentiation, even though it can be troubling to think about. As an analyst mentioned in Archives, Leonard Shengold, wrote, what happens to us does matter in terms of our development, and yet that doesn’t mean that certain events are categorically negative. “Talents and, occasionally, creative power can arise from a background of soul murder,” he explains (14). And of course, it makes sense that most behaviors are only negative in that they are perceived that way by human sensation. If a man punches an oak tree, his act is not thought of as demonic. If a man punches a young girl, it is. But the main difference between the two are the sensations the girl, as opposed to the oak, has. And if each of us experience different sensations and then translates those sensations into different feelings, it seems that there cannot be certain absolutes for any event. This is not to say there is no such thing as morality; only that different things can impact people differently, and even decidedly “negative” events can be assimilated differently, making it hard to deem that anything has a definitive emotional value.

So then, our memories and conception of self, though perhaps based not in a reality that exists outside of our own minds, are still critical to our functioning and experiential reality, perhaps even more critical than if everything that occurred subsequently had an inherent, as opposed to an imbued, meaning. Because we go through our lives interpreting and reinterpreting events, our assessment of previous events directly impacts on our assessment of present and future events. The schema we develop for our life does not simply incorporate new circumstances as they arise, but rather helps guide us in determining which events we do and do not want to incorporate. So while there is no empirical reality to speak of, there is still room for change in our narrative reality, which is, in many ways, each person’s own empirical reality. What matters is not what has happened to us as much as what we remember and how we remember it. As the Avenger to human relations quoted above posted:

Some kids have "imaginary friends". I had an "imaginary enemy". It was the telephone pole who lived out back. The nodes on top were his eyes, the "V" shape crossbars was his perpetually grinning mouth. The strange part is that I remember him speaking. Like, remember him speaking. He spoke a terrible monster-language (sounded like "Gonk-gonk-gonk") but I could understand what he was saying. He always wanted to eat me and my family. I remember him threatening my family, as much as I remember my dad talking to me as a child. Its reallythat real to me (15).

While this telephone pole enemy seems like either a silly, childlike fantasy or evidence of an uncommon and perhaps not replicable phenomenon, the fact that it remains as vivid as any other memory proves not that it happened, but simply that it is possibly as important as any other memory. It doesn’t matter whether there was a telephone pole chasing after this individual when he was a boy (or whether or not he and his father ever spent time together in a toilet bowl, as he also reports remembering), but simply that he has integrated such an idea, or recalled it as oppose to a myriad of other “fantasies,” that makes it so potentially significant. And these sorts of fantastic memories are not uncommon. Even is Avenger is the only person to have experienced just this exact event, many people remember similarly “impossible” moments from childhood, as well as seemingly more “realistic” events that nobody else is able recall.

And in fact, there are ways of parsing people’s own narratives that demonstrate a lot about how they navigate the world, regardless of the content of their tales. To a great extent, the stories we tell about our lives are affected by our culture and also by genetic and developed tendencies, but that doesn’t make the goal of recognizing narrative structure and function a less valid one, nor does it negate the potential benefits of understanding and revising one’s own story (16). If we look at the ways we tell tales about our own lives, and how these stories evolve over time, and in turn, how that evolution effects the choices we make, and how those choices then effect the stories we tell, we can begin working on exploring how we think about the things that happen to us, allowing for more fluid stories, and stories that may work for us in different ways.

There are many factors that go into how our experiences change our narratives. If a person feels an event was positive, they’ll remember it as having occurred much more recently than if it was perceived as negative (7). Additionally, those who research memory sometimes differentiate between “contaminated sequences” and “redemptive sequences” in terms of narrative thought (16). Ask one person to tell you the story of the best day of their life, and they may finish by saying something negative that happened subsequently, indicating that the takeaway message is of a lacking. A person might begin with the story of a wonderful birthday party, and end with the fact that he or she broke his or her leg that night, negating the enjoyment of the party. Conversely, ask someone with different narrative techniques the same question and they may start with something awful or traumatic, but finish with a redemptive tale of ultimate success. Perhaps in this version, the person broke his or her leg, but then the friends at the party rallied around the injured individual, and the event demonstrated just how dedicated his or her friends were. Studies have shown that not only do these two types of narrative thinking feel different to the listener; people who report more redemptive sequences than contaminated sequences are less likely to experience depression, and more likely to report overall satisfaction (16). This does not prove that telling narratives in a certain way definitely predicts happiness, nor can it assert that both sets of people had the same qualitative experiences. What is most likely is that a combination of factors may lead to how you parse your own narrative, and the more positive you feel your experiences have been, and the more genetically inclined you are to feel positively, the more likely you are to incorporate events into redeeming rather than contaminated narratives (16). Still, these narratives then continue to help determine how one acts in certain situations and subsequently how one interprets those situations, and in this way, encourages possibly self-defeating patterns of thinking and behavior.

Still other disagree strongly with examining narrative in such a way so as to determine that some sequences are contaminated and some redemptive; and, of course, this is a cultural value as well as an emotional one, and “redemptive” narratives are seen as singularly American in there world view. If we are to assert that there is no such thing as good or bad in terms of that empirical events, or thought events, that occur, it is problematic to then argue that there are good and bad ways to tell stories about our lives. Each of our autobiographical narratives works adaptively, and benefits its teller in ways it would not work for someone else. Still, what can be taken away is that there are different ways of telling the same story, and that if we are able to recognize this, and begin looking at our pasts and minds in this way, we might be able to rework our own thinking about the past in whichever way might benefit the individual thinker.

At this point, it seems that what is most important is not necessarily the event, but rather the interpretation. This does not mean that there is no moral relevance to actions, or that certain events don’t commonly precipitate certain sets of feelings and reactions (though I would argue that it does seem to suggest a negation of any absolute values imparted from certain sequences of events). The idea in revising our narratives is not to focus on certain events, or repress others, and certainly not to presume that there are right and wrong ways to tell stories about our lives, but to recognize that we already use techniques of revision in terms of the stories we tell, and that it is possible and perhaps beneficial to consciously learn more about these techniques (17).

In the mental health community there has arisen a theory of treatment termed directly “narrative therapy” in which the therapist and client work together, with the therapist leading a discussion in order to help find new meanings and interpretations for stories the client has been telling (18). Still, narrative therapists do not necessarily see themselves as outside of traditional forms of therapy in the ways that other treatments and developmental ideas have branched off from each other; recognizing the significance of reworking a person’s stories in order to help in a process of increasing mental and emotional dynamism does not need to be considered outside of the realm of other therapies. In fact, theories of narrative technique can be married to, and find root in, many more traditional therapeutic approaches as laid out above, including psychoanalysis and even cognitive behavioral therapies (19). In Dr. Marsha Linehan’s Dialectical Behavior therapy, a form of CBT that is often used to treat patients with borderline and other personality disorders, therapists often attempt to demonstrate that at any moment in time, the position a patient is holding or believes to be true could, theoretically, be replaced by a different idea entirely. As Linehan puts it, “The therapist helps the client move from ‘either-or’ to ‘both-and,’” (20). Even psychoanalysis incorporates ideas of narrative and simile into treatment, allowing for one event to have affected another, and, of course, traditionally, for imagined events to have as much significance on the present as any “true” events might. In both of these techniques recognizing narrative patterns in how we live our lives, is significant and crucial, even if the approaches do not directly refer to themselves at narratively based.

What may end up being less relevant as the uses of narrative in terms of mental healthcare increase are the commonalities between the stories from people who feel most psychologically comfortable. People who remember their most embarrassing moments and retell them in the third person are more likely to feel distanced from the person to whom those events happened – they are more likely to suggest that they have evolved from who they were when they experienced those events, and more likely to imply that they have grown because of them. People who imagine themselves completing an action in the third person as opposed to the first are more likely to, in fact, complete the action (21). And as people age, their stories and schemas solidify, and become harder to change. Older people are less likely to ascribe negative or positive events with any sort of transformative power in terms of their lives than younger people are, which suggests a strong biological in the ability to engage in narrative revision (22). Change is possible, and certainly schematic change is possible, and very natural. Still, purposeful change can be difficult, and recognizing its importance does not make it a reality. And so, it seems that what is more helpful than determining what factors exactly make “all” narratives successful is the idea of encouraging people to examine their own narratives, looking at them from a standpoint of personal authorship and agency rather than cultural approval or disapproval, or even general “success” in terms of narrative strategy.

Recognizing the existence of almost literary narratives as central facets of our psychologies of self is as much a question as it is an answer. Affirming that an empirical reality cannot determine our sense of self, and that how we structure and think about that which has happened to us, or simply that which we think has happened to us, is significantly more important than what has happened is just the tip of an iceberg. For years there has been a question of the validity and significance of repressed memories – but perhaps falsified memories are just as significant as memories of events that have “actually happened,” and even negative memories may act as catalysts for narrative change. Additionally, how do we determine what is a punishable offense if actions themselves may have no inherent value? Certainly, one cannot relieve the moral implications of incest, rape, theft, and yet, what if these events lead to good as well as bad? And, just recognizing that narrative is crucial is not the same as changing it. In small ways we have all tried to make changes to our stories that might affect our behavior, and sometimes these can be extremely hard to achieve. It would seem the goal is not to encourage people to tell a certain sort of tale, but rather to encourage people to recognize the agency they might have in writing their own stories (23). Still, so many narrative techniques come naturally to the way we think about our lives already – making people aware of how essentially everything is a story is different than simply encouraging people to think of life as if that were true. It is not introducing a new technique; rather it is bringing into our awareness something that we already do. This does not mean that it is crucial to consciously rework everything we think about; simply that there may be room for the examination of our narratives in the course of mental health work. Paraphrasing a quote by psychologist Michael Thompson New York Times’ parenting blogger Judith Warner writes, “If your dream of yourself is a bit of a nightmare, then you really owe it to your kids to let it go,” (24). This advice may not only hold true for parents, but for all of us: If the life we are living is a story we are authoring, why not work at paying attention to how we are writing it, and looking closely at what works and what does not. Good writers spend their lives perfecting their storytelling ability, and it seems we are all, innately, the writers’ of our own lives, for whom it may not hurt to have a certain awareness of our craft.

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Cited Sources

(1) Carey, Benedict. “Anticipating the Future to ‘See’ the Present” New York Times, 10th of June, 2008. Accessed from <> December 9, 2008. (2) Vaughan M.D., Susan C. “Become an Optimist to Sabe Your Life: The Illusion of an Island,” from From Half Empty, Half Full: Understanding the Psychological Roots of Optimism by Susan C. Vaughan, M.D. Copyright © 2000 accessed from December 9, 2008. (3) Munsterberg, Hugo. From On the Witness Stand:
Essays on Psychology and Crime.
Accessed at Classics in the History of Psychology, on December 9, 2008. (4) Human Memory, from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, accessed on December, 9 2008. (5) Cameron, J., Wilson, A., and Ross, M. “Autobiographical Memory and Self Assessment” from The Self in Memory edited by Beike, D., Lampinen, J., and Behrend, D. Psychology Books, New York, 2004. (6) Loftus, E.F. & Bernstein, D.M. (2005). Rich False Memories: The Royal Road to Success. In A.F. Healy (Ed) Experimental Cognitive Psychology and its Applications. Washington DC: American Psychological Association Press, p 101-113. Accessed from on December 9, 2008. (7) Howe, Mark. “Early Memory, Early Self, and the Emergence of Autobiographical Memory,” ” from The Self in Memory edited by Beike, D., Lampinen, J., and Behrend, D. Psychology Books, New York, 2004. (8) Peterson, Carole. “Children’s Long-term Memory for Autobiographical Events,” in Developmental Review, Volume 22, Issue 3, September 2002, pages 370-402. (9) “Psych 101: Chapter 3: Personality Development,” Copyright © 1999-2003, AllPsych and Heffner Media Group, Inc., All Rights Reserved. Last Updated March 21, 2004. Accessed from December 9, 2008. (10) Grobstein, Paul. “The Bipartite Brain
And Its Significance for Idealism, Pragmatism and Other Matters,” Serendip. </bb/bipartitebrain/>, accessed December 9, 2008. (11) Crew, Frederick, The Memory Wars. The New York Review of Books Inc., New York, 1995. (12) Malcolm, Janet, In the Freud Archives. Vintage Books, the United States of America, first printing 1983, 1985. (13) Weems, Carl F. “Developmental trajectories of childhood anxiety: Identifying continuity and change in anxious emotion” Developmental Review 28 (2008) 488–502 (14) Malcolm, Janet. In the Freud Archives. Vintage Books, the United States of America, first printing 1983, 1985 quoted from Shengold, Leonard, quoted from Child Abuse and Deprivation: Soul Murder. (15) Posted by “Avenger to human relation,” on metafilter, posted on October 23, 2007. Accessed on December 9, 2008. (16) McAdams, Dan. “Redemptive Self: Narrative Identity in America Today” from The Self in Memory edited by Beike, D., Lampinen, J., and Behrend, D. Psychology Books, New York, 2004. (17) Freedman J., and Combs, G. Narrative Therapy: The Social Construction of Preferred Realities. W.W. Norton & Company, 1996. (18) Gibbs, Sarah M. “The Story Hour: The Use of Narrative Therapy with Families,” Serendip. < /exchange/node/577>, accessed December 9, 2008. (19) Hevern, V. W. (2003, May). Psychoanalysis and Depth Psychologies. Narrative psychology: Internet and resource guide. Retrieved December, 9 2008 from the Le Moyne College Web site: (20) Linehan, Marsha. “An Illustration of Dialectical Behavior Therapy,” In Session: Psychotherapy in Practice. Volume 4, Issue 2, Summer 1998. (21) Carey, Benedict. “This Is Your Life (and How You Tell It),” New York Times, 22nd of May, 2007. Accessed on December 9, 2008. (22) Westerhoff, Nikolas, “Set in Our Ways: Why Change is So Hard,” Scientific American, December, 2008. Accessed from on December 9, 2008 (23) Robin LydenbergBook Review; Psychoanalysis and Narrative Medicine” The New England Journal of Medicine. Boston: May 22, 2008. Vol. 358, Iss. 21; pg. 2303 (24) Warner, Judith. “My Daughters/My Self,” New York Times, December 11, 2008 accessed from December 12, 2008.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Narrativity and mental health, personal stories and beyond ...

Well worth reading in parallel with Marty's commentary on cognitive therapy to get a sense of the span of perspectives that emerged in the course, and that any coherent story of mental health needs to accomodate. To say nothing of raising intriguing questions in its own right (see Making the Unconscious Conscious, and Vice Versa) ...

"I will first look at the brain’s processing of the world, in order to demonstrate that the idea of a right or correct way of either seeing or experiencing the world is, seemingly, an impossibility."

An intriguing starting point, not only for personal narratives but for all understanding ... of oneself, of others, and of the world. See The Brain's Constructions and Deconstructions of "Reality" and Making Sense of Understanding.

"each sensory event that occurs is processed in a plethora of ways within the mind, as are events that occur only in the mind, and so both can end up becoming significant in the development of the psyche."

And in the development of understandings of reality generally, no? "events that occur only in the mind," story elements, are significant for all understanding, yes?

"there are certain occurrences that cannot be valueless ... what is most important is not necessarily the event, but rather the interpretation"

Aye, there's the key point, and the rub? Or at least one of them. Can we accept the idea that events themselves, including the Holocaust, lack any meaning other than that which is given to them by brains/ourselves? What would be the consequences of doing so?

"it seems that what is more helpful than determining what factors exactly make “all” narratives successful is the idea of encouraging people to examine their own narratives, looking at them from a standpoint of personal authorship and agency rather than cultural approval or disapproval, or even general “success” in terms of narrative strategy."

Both narratives of onself as well as of others and the world?

"recognizing that narrative is crucial is not the same as changing it ... we are all, innately, the writers’ of our own lives, for whom it may not hurt to have a certain awareness of our craft"

With what objective in mind? Simply craftsmanship?

jrlewis's picture

Another Direction

Your discussion of the difference between historical and imagined memories is very interesting.  It might be useful to consider the concept of motor imagery and its affect on the brain.  Motor imagery is a kind of visualization, where a person rehearses certain actions without performing them. This process is carried out by the storyteller.  However, the person is better able to perform these actions after imagining them, an unonscious response.  Could something similar be happening with imagined as opposed to actual memories?