“No,” Jake said adamantly, “Don’t you remember? I was standing right there, not here, and I was with Sam, not Sylvia.”
“That’s not the way it was at all,” Stacey said with growing annoyance. “Why do you get everything mixed up? I have a much better memory of things than you do and you are all wrong.”
Jake and Stacey can argue until the cows come home. There will never be a way to prove that either one was right nor will either one suddenly “remember” the situation differently. And this has less to do with the desire to win an argument than with how our brains work.
I read an interesting book recently, Incognito: the Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman. It is stocked well with research findings so whether you like or don’t like some of Eagleman’s conclusions (I don’t care for one or two of them), the research is nevertheless good enough to stop an argument about what really happened last week at your mother-in-law’s house.
Eagleman reports on research done by Michael Gazzaniga and Joseph LeDoux with people whose right and left brain hemispheres were unable to communicate with each other. By studying people with split-brain function like this, scientists can gain knowledge about the different roles of the hemispheres.
They showed a picture of a chicken claw to the right eye (left hemisphere) and a snow shovel to the left eye (right hemisphere). The man was asked to point at pictures which illustrated what he had just been shown. His right hand pointed to a picture of a chicken, and his left hand pointed to a snow shovel.
The left hemisphere has the better capacity for language. It is up to the left to explain behavior. Remember that this person’s brain was split and the left hemisphere knew nothing about the snow shovel being shown to the other side of the brain. When the researchers asked the man why he was pointing to the snow shovel, the left hemisphere—which did not see the shovel, but which is charged with organizing our experience—had to come up with a story that somehow incorporated that shovel. And he did. The man said, “The chicken claw goes with the chicken and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed” (p.134).
The Left-Brain’s Job Is To Make Sense Out Of Nonsense
Researchers studying intact brains have found the same thing. Our brains take in information and then our left hemisphere combines it to create logical stories. When the information is contradictory, the anterior cingulate cortex in the left hemisphere of the brain has the job of smoothing out contradictions.
As neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist explains, our left hemisphere’s job is to “blot out information that doesn’t fit into its picture” (presentation, June 17, 2011). It is a little disturbing that this ability to create stories through the use of language may not be an accurate representation of reality. What’s more, the seat of emotions is in the left hemisphere, too. It is almost as if our clever brains fabricate stories that support our feelings instead of emotions being in service of logic.
In a Wall Street Journal review of a new book, The Believing Brain, by Michael Shermer, Matt Ridley writes that the brain would rather see patterns even if they don’t exist and thereby make sense of the world (September 10-11, 2011). It is through this process, the author argues, that we build convictions on flimsy facts. We begin with a belief and then supply the “evidence” to support it. And we all do it, not just conspiracy theorists. But that is a problem. As Mr. Ridley points out, “If we all do it, then how do we know that our own rational rejections of conspiracy theories are not themselves infected with beliefs so strong that they are, in effect, conspiracy theories, too?”
The take-away message here is straightforward: Don’t argue with your spouse about what really happened or who is really right because there is no way to get to Truth. Instead, be a good listener and try to understand the meaning behind your partner’s conviction. After all, isn’t the fun of marriage that journey to discover the heart and soul of another human being?