Here are some things you believe:
- Your conscious brain makes decisions
- Those decisions are based on reason
- Emotions prevent good decision-making
- Your unconscious manages systems (breathing, circulation, digestion) but stays in the background, except maybe when you’re dreaming
- Memory is the act of accessing recordings of sights and sounds stored in your brain
- Memories are accurate, because they’re recordings
- While things can be forgotten, you can’t remember things that never happened
- Memory is a purely mental function, happening only in your brain
- If you don’t remember something it doesn’t affect you
- Willpower is how things get done
Guess how many of those are true?
Did you guess zero?
In How We Decide Jonah Lehrer recounts the experience of neurologist Antonio Damasio and his patient Elliot. For our purposes, here’s the short version: due to a brain injury Elliot lost all emotion. Tests showed he had no emotional response to anything at all.
Elliot lost something else: the ability to make decisions.
In one experiment Damasio asked Elliot to choose the date for his next appointment and offered two days in the same week. Elliot dithered aloud about which to choose for half an hour without ever coming to a conclusion. (Damasio says it took all his self-control not to scream as he listened to the endless series of “on the other hand.”)
Repeated research has shown that no matter what preparation, research, analysis we perform, decisions are made in our emotional centers, not our rational centers. Without emotions, we are literally incapable of making decisions.
You Think You Don’t Remember
In Rosanne Bane’s Around the Writer’s Block she tells about a patient in a French hospital who, because of a brain injury (this seems to be a theme which I don’t want to investigate) lost the ability to form new memories. Every time her doctor Edouard Claparède spoke to her he had to introduce himself as if for the first time. Every single time. She always shook his hand and greeted him as if they’d never met.
Once, as an experiment, he put a pin between his fingers so that when she shook his hand the pin pricked her. Claparède apologized, chatted with her briefly, then left.
When he returned, he introduced himself and held his hand out to shake hers. She refused to shake his hand, though she had never refused before. When pressed, she made up various reasons she didn’t want to shake his hand. She had no conscious memory of the real cause.
In The Emotional Brain Joseph LeDoux states that we have a separate memory system “operating outside of consciousness and controlling behavior without explicit awareness of the past learning.” In other words, you can avoid things that hurt you even if you don’t remember them.
Wait, Maybe You Do Remember
In The Invisible Gorilla Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons refer to a study performed by a group of psychologists (Wade, Garry, Read, and Lindsay) where subjects were shown a fake photograph of themselves as a child taking a hot-air balloon ride, when in fact none had done so. Over a number of interviews, half the subjects eventually incorporated the event into their own memories, even extrapolating details not in the photograph.
What Does It All Mean?
Every person who has ever tried something creative as a child (we might shorten that to “every person” since, as children, we’re all creative) has encountered Roy H. Williams’ prune-faced martinet weaned on a pickle.
Over time, encounter enough martinets, and creativity is banished. Most of us simply don’t have the emotional fortitude and maturity to withstand the pummeling of our cherished notions by figures of authority.
Fast forward a couple or three decades, when we cast our minds back to when we used to love to act as a kid, to paint or draw, to tell lavish stories, to sing or dance. That was fun, wasn’t it? And even if it was Mom and Dad, they told us we were pretty good. Let’s try that again, why don’t we? Now that we’re adults we should be pretty good at it.
And the moment we sit down to create, Dr. Claparède’s pin pokes our unconscious memory in the hand, and we refuse to shake hands. Or create.
But we don’t know why.
So like Claparède’s patient, we make up reasons. There’s obviously a rational explanation, and since we don’t remember the prune-faced martinet telling us we were doing it wrong, we come up with 1,001 excuses for why we never get around to creating.
Barring psychological aberration, we were all ridiculed for being different at some point in our past. We all have unconscious memories of that ridicule.
We all have Resistance lurking in our unconscious.
Why do those forgotten, unrememberable events, matter? How can they possible prevent us from making up some stuff and writing it down?
That’s next: an exercise to show you that when we write things they become real to us, and why we can’t ignore the fear.
After that: We’ll Always Have Willpower. Or, Not.