For Many, the Mind is an Unreliable Narrator
Most of Us Can’t Trust What Our Minds Say Unless We Train It to Work with Us
When I’m not watching black and white comedies to relax, I can almost always be found watching my second favorite genre of film or TV, which is usually a serious psychological, mind-bending thriller (much to the chagrin of the art goddess). I enjoy the relaxing, low-stakes mental stimulation of a good mystery.
One of my favorite plot devices in mystery stories is the “unreliable narrator.” As the name implies, it means the narrator of the story might not be telling the truth or is not 100% objective in their motivations. It’s a clever way to really mess with the mind of a reader or listener, most of whom are used to the omniscient and objective third person narration, or at the very least expect the person telling the story within the story to be a character of good. There are plenty examples of this trope throughout literature, film and TV, from Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart to Mr. Robot (or Legion) and from The Usual Suspects to Fight Club to name a few. This style of storytelling deepens the mystery and almost always forces me to go back and re-watch or reread to understand all the nuances and subtleties of how the unreliable narrator was messing with the reader or listener.
Recently, I’ve begun to wonder if I enjoy this deceitful dance because I understand a fundamental truth about the mind that many don’t wish to acknowledge. You see, I believe that most of us fail to see that we’re literally always walking around with an unreliable narrator within out midst. Plot twist; the unreliable narrator is our mind.
As someone who has been meditating for roughly 11 years, one of the biggest revelations I’ve learned is that we cannot always trust what our mind is telling us. This may sound like a radical idea. For some, maybe it is. However, for those who have been meditating for as long as or more than I, this probably isn’t surprising.
But before explaining why, it’s important for everyone to understand a few nuanced ideas I’ve written or spoken about before so that we’re all on the same page. First, while I acknowledge that the brain vs. mind debate is still ongoing, I find it helpful to make a distinction between the brain and the mind. I’ll admit I fall into the philosophical camp that says the brain and the mind are not the same thing. Thinking they are, often leads to more frustration and confusion. Our brain is the organ that controls our body and stores memories, like a hard-drive. Our mind is the thoughts and ideas that come to us, shaping how we see the world, a little bit like an operating system such as Andorid, IOS, Windows, Chrome, etc. Essentially the mind thinks while the brain reacts (most of the time).
It’s also important to make another distinction that some may also find controversial. In a way, our mind is a separate entity from us, our consciousness. We are not our mind. Let me repeat; we are NOT our mind. It is only an extension of us so to speak. As mentioned earlier, it helps us see the world and shapes our understanding. But, if one were to listen closely to all the thoughts of the mind (meditation provides a big time assist with this skill), after a while it becomes highly obvious that the mind is a separate entity from us/our consciousness.
Here’s an example of this separation in action. Picture yourself waiting in line to checkout groceries. The person ahead of you is a talker. During the entirety of the checkout, they’re talking to the cashier; maybe they know them. Eventually you feel like their checkout has gone on way too long because you have places, important places to be. It gets especially annoying when the talker busts out their phone to show the cashier a few photos. That’s when your mind beams a crazy idea into your brain, saying “I wish I could just walk over there and slap that phone right out of their hand and tell them to hurry the f*** up!” Now here’s the catch, I’m willing to bet 95% of people who have a similar thought from their mind don’t act on it. Why? Because deep down we know that’s wrong and would cause a scene, not to mention maybe we’d feel bad later. Our consciousness (or whatever makes us us) has to hold back our mind from sending signals to our brain, to some extent, from sometimes acting out on what our mind is thinking &/or feeling.
But this isn’t the only example of the mind getting a little aggressive or being unreliable. Anyone with self-esteem issues could probably write a novel about how their mind has or continues to belittle their being with thoughts of how “that’s not good enough” or “you’re too fat” or “you’ll never find love” or any number of thoughts. These negative thoughts are also known as cognitive distortions. While they happen to most of us from time to time, it can become a problem if it’s happening too often, because they become regular thought patterns that our mind uses to filter information through, which can than effect our overall mental and emotional health. It’s important to note, there are many reasons why someone might develop cognitive distortion issues, but the fact remains that, in a way, the mind can exploit these feelings when we don’t know how to cope with them.
Those who meditate with any regularity probably also understand the fallacy of trusting what the mind says 100% of the time. When I meditate, the first 5–10 minutes of it is spent doing my best to focus exclusively on my breathing while my mind essentially morphs into a phantom Tasmanian devil cartoon, flooding my brain with all kinds of thoughts because it detests the lack of incessant stimulation that is rife throughout 21st century living.
Granted, I understand why the mind does this to a certain extent. In an article I wrote for Elephant Journal several years ago, I explained how
“…our brains are essentially hardwired to analyze and store information, while simultaneously keeping us alive through a combination of the autonomic nervous system and amygdala (the brain’s fear center). Not to mention that many parts of western civilization encourage a rush-around, carrot-dangling mentality that is almost constantly stimulating the brain’s fear center and the medial prefrontal cortex (the brain’s “Me Center”).”
It’s surprising sometimes how negative our minds can be. But it’s also surprising at how easy it is for our minds to trick us into believing it. I mean, I understand from a logical perspective why the mind often goes negative (HINT: it’s potentially an outdated survival mechanism), but the problem is that we don’t have to be in survival mode when nothing is happening! We also have the power to NOT react to everything our mind wants us to react to, otherwise we’d literally become a slave to our impulses.
PLEASE NOTE, I recognize the mind does not always use negativity to speak to us. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that for some people, the mind can speak in the opposite way, lavishing one with praise about how amazing they are or how they are a very stable genius who has the best words. There’s actually a psychological term for this, called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
Sometimes though, the mind is just lazy and doesn’t want to put in the effort to actually think about something, especially if that something goes against a preconceived notion or belief it’s put a lot of of effort into building for us. So it creates these shortcuts that act as shields to fend off challenges to some of our more ingrained beliefs. The problem though, is that these shortcuts generalize, marginalize, compartmentalize because believe it or not, sometimes the mind gets tired of over-analyzing. These shortcuts are essentially the basis for cognitive biases.
But it’s not just cognitive biases that signal a lazy mind. Have you noticed how long it takes to form a new habit or break an old one? Several myths perpetuated by pop challenges tell us it takes roughly 30 days to form a new habit. However, in reality backed by science it usually takes around 66 days to form or break a habit. I think most of us can attest, especially when it comes to New Year’s resolutions, the mind isn’t always on our side. How many times have any of us been working toward a goal and our mind randomly tells us that there’s no way we could achieve that and/or we should give up because it’s too hard (or it’s ok to cheat just this once… and also tomorrow, and the day after that, etc)?
I believe a majority of these thoughts that the mind spits out are triggered from some type of fear or anxiety. And, it doesn’t matter if it’s from an external stimuli or internal trigger. Maybe it’s a subconscious thing. I don’t know, I’m not a psychologist. Regardless of where it’s coming from, at some point we have to deal with it if we aren’t dealing with it already.
And for many of us, this is something we have to deal with. That’s because the scary part is how quickly our mind can convince us that it is speaking the truth. “Trust me, I’m your brain, how can this be wrong if it’s coming from you.” Hell, I still fall for this trick sometimes. The other day I briefly spiraled into a whirlpool of negative thoughts after the headphones I use for my job began malfunctioning out of nowhere. It happens. I’m still human.
It becomes easier to understand why many tend to abandon their goals or continue reacting in similar (sometimes unhealthy) ways to certain thoughts or triggers when we understand how new thoughts and habits form. So think of all the beliefs and habits we have as paved roads crisscrossing and spiraling all over our brain. Any thought or feeling we have are filtered slightly as it travels down several of these roads before getting to us. These roads are called neural pathways. Whenever we try to form a new belief or habit, it essentially means our brain has to build and pave a new road. Oftentimes, our mind (because it’s lazy) doesn’t want to do that. It’s much more comfortable continuing to drive thoughts and feelings down the same paved roads it already knows, like giving up or complaining about how much we suck. But the mind is also where the ego rests, it will totally want to save face by blaming anything but itself for not sticking to building the habit or learning about a new fact or belief. This is part of what is known as the self-serving bias.
I would also contend the mind does this when we’re online and we find an article, blog or video that feeds into our confirmation bias. That’s partly why this last year has been rather disappointing. I’ve watched many friends who claim to be part of a spiritual or conscious community go down absurd rabbit holes of nonsense information. But this is what the brain does sometimes, especially when it feels threatened or overstimulated. I’ll totally admit that I was a little more prone to certain types of conspiratorial thinking some 7–8 years ago. I’d find some crazy info online and my mind would convince me, saying “This is super legit. Why would this person lie? Look, they have numbers and use vaguely scientific words. Plus this video looks supe’s official. Everything checks out. Don’t think about it anymore.”
It was only after I had been meditating for a few years did I begin to think a little more critically about whether or not if my mind was feeding me good/healthy “food for thought.”
It is important to note that we’re online and searching for information, two different tricks are actually being played on us. The first trick is the use of algorithms and other psychologically deceptive practices to essentially show us more content that gets us to stay on &/or interact with certain social media or search engine the longest. Usually, that content (while initially based on click & search history) is something that gets emotions amped up, feeding into & releasing dopamine receptors in our brains. In turn, this trick triggers our mind into tricking us that we want to see more and that we should totally trust what we’re reading or watching because that dopamine flow feels soooooo gooooood. It’s not just happening in adolescents either. My point here is that sometimes even the trickster that is our mind can get tricked too.
Please note, I’m not saying we should completely ignore ALL of what our mind tells us. We just have to be more discerning and put on our thinking caps to understand from where our thoughts and feelings are coming.
Tips for Making the Unreliable Narrator More Reliable
Sometimes it’s hard to do that though. It takes time to discern not only the information we’re sifting through but also whatever our mind tells us. But the important idea is that for those of us whose mind works in these ways, it’s important to understand we shouldn’t simply trust our mind outright, just as we shouldn’t simply trust whatever information we read online without verifying sources. It takes practice. And it also takes some rewiring and building some new neural pathway roads in our brain, though it depends on the situation.
Still we need to be able to recognize the logical fallacies our mind may feed us. This is in addition to understanding how it uses confirmation bias, the Dunning-Kruger Effect as well as other cognitive biases in attempts to placate our desires to be liked and/or feel good and/or confirm our worst fears. Knowing and understanding these logical fallacies and cognitive biases isn’t the only way, though it is helpful to have some idea of the different patterns/game-plans that the mind draws from in order to more easily stop it from gaining too much momentum. An easy way to think of this is that once we understand how the mind creates fear, it becomes a choice.
For those who find their mind is often more negative, practicing a mettā meditation (aka loving-kindness) might be a great start. For those who find their mind might be a little overzealous or arrogant in thoughts, a little vichāra meditation (aka self-inquiry) is probably a better way to start. It’s actually similar to asking some more grounded, body-budgeting questions as suggested by Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett in her New York Times op-ed. Regardless, some form of meditation, yoga and exercise is needed to quiet the loudness of the mind. But it’s important to know that doing these activities isn’t going to silence the mind forever and make everything in your life all rainbows and crystals. Doing these activities simply creates the space for us to see and hear the mind for what it is, but then it is up to each of us individually to discern and decide how we want to move on and heal from the years of trickery our mind has often employed.
There are other scientifically proven practices one can take that would probably help to change or at least quiet the unreliable narrator that is our mind, notably through therapy with trained professionals, but the previous techniques are a good start. It’s important to remember that because we may feel our mind is an unreliable narrator doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. If anything, it just means it’s been trained to process information, and like anything that is trained it can also be untrained/deprogrammed (again with the help of a trained therapist). It may take time, but if we are least willing to move through these practices, in the long run it means less time having to spend attempting to suss out the reliability of that narrator in our brain.
I am by no means a sociologist or a spiritual guru. I don’t even hold a degree in political science or sociology. But still, like many people, I’m not immune to noticing certain patterns about how the world apparently “works” for some. So I write about it, hoping more will notice these patterns, get inspired and perhaps feel inclined to also speak up. Or at the very least, maybe my words will inspire others to write what they are moving through. Feel free to read more of my thoughts on Medium or check out my website to learn more about me.