The other night I heard a quote on ER that I instantly loved. It originated from Einstein – the man was a machine for great quotes – and goes like this:
“Reality is the most persistent illusion.”
That’s been rattling round in my head ever since. Then, on Springwatch (I don’t watch that much TV really, honest) the host, Bill Oddie, said how many people who say they’ve seen a ghost when walking down a twilight country lane have actually seen a Barn Owl. By coincidence we saw a Barn Owl near our house a few days later, and his words came back to me. We did sight it in broad daylight, but still it seemed amazing that a Barn Owl could be construed as being anything else; particularly something as unlikely as a ghost.
My Nan went to her grave swearing she’d seen a ghost, down a country lane, funnily enough. Did she really see a Barn Owl? I’d say ‘probably’ because I’ll take something that exists over something we haven’t proven exists most times, but that wouldn’t matter to my Nan. Her reality that ghosts exist remained a persistent belief, steadfast in the face of my scepticism.
Now, I fully accept I could be wrong, and my belief that ghosts don’t exist is actually the illusion here, but I’d like to leave that argument for another day. What I’m more interested in is the Barn Owl effect on our daily lives.
Just suppose that what my Nan saw that night was a Barn Owl. What happened to convert it to a ghost – and what was the effect over time of her doing so?
Here’s what neuroscience suggests happened:
Nan’s walking along, mind probably on not very much. Her attention is grabbed by a blur of movement in the twilight. Our brain receives something like 2 million ‘packets’ of information from our five senses every second. Most of this information (overwhelmingly most) doesn’t ever come to our awareness – although we can respond to it without realising we are. This information is processed unconsciously for meaning, initially around survival needs; ‘is there anything in my surroundings that could harm me?’ Processing cascades down from there to other survival needs such as sex and food, and onwards to other levels of meaning such as ‘for what use is that object in front of me?’ Most will be left in the background of our awareness, but some will be brought to the foreground – things that you will consciously pay attention to. Again, what we pay attention to is the result of an unconscious calculation by our brain, usually not a free choice of our own (there may actually be no such thing as free will, but, again, I’ll leave that to another day).
So, for Nan, her brain has refined the mass of information from her senses and brought to the foreground the information that is the Barn Owl, probably because it failed to identify it and so it hasn’t been scanned out as a possible threat. It’s likely that in the context of her situation – lone woman, walking somewhere isolated at night – her unconscious is on a higher level of alert, so the appearance of something unidentified would lead to a release of adrenalin, the classic fight or flight response.
Our state influences our interpretation of information – with adrenalin running around her system her mental reference system is primed to look for a meaning for the information related to fight or flight. My Nan came from a family steeped in country lore where the existence of the supernatural was pretty much a given, so her reference system, looking for the meaning of the current situation by looking for something to compare it to from her past, would have come to ‘it’s a ghost’ pretty quickly. As John Lubbock once said, “We see what we expect to see.” Bill Oddie would have seen an owl (even if it was a ghost), someone else might have seen an alien, someone else a party balloon.
Because of the high emotional content of this moment in Nan’s life, it’s likely to be stored by her brain as what we call a ‘Significant Emotional Event’ (SEE). Memories such as these tend to be central to how we view what happens to us in our life subsequently. SEE’s are used by the brain as prime reference experiences when it looks back to find understanding for what the present means. At the heart of most of our core beliefs are SEE’s that led us to conclude something about ourselves or the world. In Nan’s case that evening began or consolidated a belief in the supernatural. The belief lasted her entire life.
Now, if we retrace our steps just a little, and assume the Barn Owl wasn’t a ghost. When the brain decided that it was a ghost it projected onto the object flying past her the characteristics that would create the appearance of it as a ghost. Her brain hallucinated something utterly compelling. Doctor Leonard Orr developed a useful model I always refer to as Orr’s Law. Imagine your mind has two parts, the Thinker and the Prover. The maxim is, ‘what the Thinker thinks the Prover proves.’ In other words, if you have a belief, then your mind will only bring information to your attention that supports the belief, and will distort or delete anything that goes against it. You’ve probably had experiences yourself when somebody is presented with an incontrovertible proof that goes against something they hold to be true, and they still refuse to accept it and may offer wild reasons why it can’t be true. That’s the Thinker/Prover for you. So with my Nan, once the belief is safely embedded in her neurology, it will affect any future event that her brain matches to it. Her moment in the twilight becomes something her brain will compare similar events to in order to assess a threat, or to provide evidence to maintain her belief – so every time her smarty pants Grandson derides her belief in ghosts, or provides evidence against their likelihood, her brain does a search, finds her ‘ghost moment’, and maintains her stance with total conviction.
Here is the crux. My Nan believed utterly in ghosts owing to an illusion presented to her by her brain in a country lane. Something that lasted seconds persisted for a lifetime.
“Reality is the most persistent illusion.”
How many Barn Owls do you have in your past?
How many do I?
Take a client who came to see me with a belief that she’s stupid. This belief has led her to a career that is substantially below her potential and the provider of great anxiety whenever she tries to further herself. When I regressed her back to the SEE that first created the belief that she’s stupid she remembered a time when she was about 8 years old and her Dad was shouting at her. He’d been trying to help her with her maths and she wasn’t getting it. He was tired from a day at work, and he lost his temper, shouting that if she didn’t work hard she’d never make anything of herself, blah blah, I suspect we’ve all been on both sides of that kind of moment.
One of the scariest things for a child is the prospect of a parent withdrawing their approval or love of you. In fact I think it comes top. So this could easily qualify as a Significant Emotional Event and be stored in this little girls head as a piece of learning to be used to keep her from danger in the future. For any of us in this situation the consequence is usually avoidance of any situation that could reveal us as stupid – because stupid = not loved. The way we respond to danger is the good old fight or flight response, so as any event that could make her look stupid gets closer, such as offering an opinion, an exam or job interview, she gets more and more panicky. The trouble is, as Joseph LeDoux is apt to say, “Strong emotion makes you stupid”, so she arrives at the event in a complete emotional mess and lives up to her expectation (remember we get the future we expect?). So the survival mechanism that evolved to protect us actually perpetuates the problem. Something I named the Therapeutic Paradox.
When she comes to see me she’s in her mid-thirties and has suffered the consequences of her illusion since the age of 8. Why an illusion? Well, did her father mean that she was stupid? Was his intention to create in his child a fear of succeeding that would persist throughout her life? Of course not, he wanted the exact opposite. That’s how it often works with children. Their brain relates everything to their need for love and safety and will adapt their behaviour to keep in the glow of their parent’s approval. They’ll do more of what they think will be rewarded, and less of what they think will bring disapproval (obviously I’m not talking about teenagers here!). Her brain made a processing error. His shouting caused a strong emotion in her – fear – which narrowed the parameters of meaning the situation could have to her (as it did with my Nan when she saw the blurred movement). Like trying to be happy at a wedding when you’ve just been dumped, your emotional state will influence your interpretation of what’s happening. In my client’s case, him shouting scared her; that emotional state guided her mind’s interpretation away from ‘I’m loved’, towards ‘I’m not loved’. And if you’re a parent I bet it’s just sparked some memories of when you’ve done a similar thing.
So the illusion that’s she’s stupid persists through her life and becomes her reality. Her Thinker/Prover keeps her away from any situation that might make her look stupid (anything she could fail at) because it’s linked to a childhood fear of losing her father’s love. Even though it’s really just a Barn Owl.
I think we all have examples of such processing errors in our past; and most of us live with the limitations they bring us to this day. But Joseph Le Doux has demonstrated with his Reconsolidation theory that memories are plastic and can always be altered, indeed I find this a core activity of Cognitive Hypnotherapy – giving the brain a second chance to interpret experiences so that by changing ghosts back into Barn Owls the brain has something new in its past to use to calculate a more positive future. Where reinterpretation of old events isn’t appropriate – some events really were as bad as they seemed – other techniques are available to change the code the memory is written in (I mean that as a computer metaphor, not literally), to delete the emotional content of it.
The past is never over for us, so we should make it the best one we can get our brains to believe. How much better would your life be if the most persistent illusion your brain maintained was of you as a loved, competent being living in a generous universe? I think my Nan would have liked that.