Richard G. Petty, MD

Re-Writing Our Life Stories and Developing Resilience

“Every man’s story is important, eternal and sacred.”

–Herman Hesse (German-born Swiss Novelist, Poet and, in 1946, Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, 1877-1962)

In Healing, Meaning and Purpose, I spend a lot of time discussing the nature of memory – that it does not work like a video recorder, but is a dynamic process – and the value of re-writing your life story. This is a remarkably powerful technique.

What is particularly interesting and useful is to uncover events in our lives that have had two characteristics. First, is that they had a strong subjective impact. And second, that they generated meaning. Breaking up with a partner might generate a lot of emotion and lead you to believe that you are not good in relationships or it could make you think that the other person didn’t appreciate you. Losing a game of football may be painful, but will likely not generate much meaning. Unless your team is on a thirty game losing streak….

A recent study from Quebec published in the Journal of Personality, studied events that we use to define ourselves. Researchers looked at the subjective impact and the meaning-making effect of these self-defining events. This is what they found. When we remember events in our lives that we feel had a major impact on our life story or on our sense of identity, we tend to downplay the negative and emphasize the positive.

When we are asked to think back to those events, we tend to report less sadness and more pride than we actually felt at the time. For positive memories, people reported equally intense positive emotions – for example love – and less negative emotions – such as fear – compared with how they recalled feeling at the time.

What this means is that in the face of change, adversity and opportunity, we are always trying to maintain a positive and coherent sense of self. This is a component of psychological resilience. Someone with clinical depression loses the ability to maintain this positive and coherent sense of self.

This work is also important for people trying to fashion a more positive view of him or herself. While it is usually a good idea to cultivate a positive mental attitude, there are some people for whom such an approach can be disastrous: they are the ones who thrive on negativity. Which one are you?

Simply deciding to change your view of yourself will likely have only a very short-term effect unless you identify and work with cardinal life events. Some forms of psychotherapy revolve around trying to identify the key events that have fashioned our sense of self and that have contributed to our identity. You can begin that process for yourself.

But that is only one part of the equation.

Any long-term change will also involve the attitudes and expectations of other people: none of us lives in a vacuum. I have known countless supremely self-confident musicians, artists and even scientists, whose careers have never got started, because nobody agreed with their evaluation of themselves.

There are a number of ways of presenting yourself in a way that will inspire confidence in other people, and I shall discuss some of those in one of my future programs.

“Every story can be told in different ways.”

–Greek Proverb

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Multiple Selves

There is a most interesting report from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. This study relates back to some of my previous posts about meditation and hyperfocus. I think that we’ve all had the experience of losing ourselves in any activity: playing a game, watching a movie, sex or an enthralling novel. The researchers showed that during intense sensory tasks, the introspective self-related functions of the brain shut down. The experimental subjects were asked to look at pictures or listen to music. For sensory processing, the subjects were asked to answer yes/no questions about the items. To study introspection, the subjects were asked to indicate whether emotionally they felt strongly or neutrally about the image or musical passage. While they were doing all this, their brains were being scanned using functional MRI (fMRI).

As expected, regions of the brain activated during sensory processing or self-reflective introspection were quite distinct and segregated. Sensory processing activated the sensory cortex and related structures, while introspection activated the prefrontal cortex. But the important finding was that activity in the self-related prefrontal cortex was damped down during intense sensory processing. What this seems to indicate, is that the self-related cortex isn’t involved in the awareness of perceptions, but is involved in allowing us to reflect upon perceptions, to judge their importance to us, and to allow us to report our experiences to the outside world.

I have a quibble with something that they say at the end of the paper: “Thus, the term “losing yourself” receives here a clear neuronal correlate. This theme has a tantalizing echoing in Eastern philosophies such as Zen teachings, which emphasize the need to enter into a “mindless,” selfless mental state to achieve a true sense of reality.”

As interesting as the study is, I think that these comments betray a rather one-dimensional view of the “self.” There are clearly many aspects to the “self:”

  • Physical
  • Sensory
  • Psychological: the Conscious, Preconscious and Unconscious Selves
  • Relational: (Have a look back at my post form March 15th
  • Subtle
  • Spiritual

My 35-year experience and understanding of the Eastern traditions is not of simply switching off one or other of these “selves,” but of bringing full mindful attention to everything that is going on. I just came across a brief piece by Professor Charles Tart , in which he is saying something very similar, and points out, with characteristic wit, that the Eastern mindfulness teachings don’t require us to enter into a “mindless” state to find reality. After all, if you are belabored about the head and shoulders with a stout cudgel, that should also achieve that aim!

So we return to a theme on which I’ve been expounding for some time now: these studies are fascinating and interesting, but they only deal with one part of the human experience. Let me refer you back to Ken Wilber for his important views on this issue, and the long section in Healing, Meaning and Purpose, that discusses this in considerable detail. The neurological findings represent correspondences and not causes.

Another blogger, Neurocritic, picked up an amusing error in a report of this study in New Scientist . Well spotted!

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Sit and Smell the Roses

“O, my love’s like a red red rose That’s newly sprung in June.”
–Robert Burns (Scottish Poet, 1759-1796)

Just in time for Valentine’s day, comes some research from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, that may have important implications for many people. Researchers discovered that the sensitivity to the smell of roses was greater in people sitting than in those who were lying down.

This is consistent with other research that has found that many of our senses are less acute when we lie down. It is not simply that when we lie down our noses are less exposed to wind drafts carrying odors, it is likely part of a complex series of partial shut downs of the senses that take place as we prepare for sleep.

There are two messages from this research:

1. Most brain imaging studies are done when people are lying down in a scanner, so when we are doing experiments involving the senses, we may need to rethink that, and see if we can re-arrange things so that subjects can be seated.

2. If you are planning on scattering rose petals, or giving someone special a bouquet of roses, perhaps you should wait until they have got out of bed…..

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