The fact that you feel in control of your life—at, really, any given moment—is, according to Will Storr writing in Aeon, an illusion painted by a brilliant brain struggling to make sense of the world. According to psychologists, it's your emotions that are always—or almost always, at any rate—in charge.
We think we’re captained by the part of us that’s self-conscious – the bit that we experience as our own living ‘me’, that collision of sense, memory and internal monologue at the centre of which sits the ‘I’. Yet there’s a silent, unconscious ‘I’ to which we have no access. It communicates with emotions, wordlessly coaxing us this way and that with its ceaseless blooms of disgust and fear and desire. It influences everything we think and do.
Exactly how much influence does this self have over our behaviour? Experts disagree. Some say its control is total: that the voice that speaks in the privacy of our heads might seem like it’s in charge, but really it’s just a babbling spin doctor, making excuses for the misdeeds of its boss. Others claim that our rational selves can play an executive role under certain, limited circumstances – but not much more than that. Either way, most of the time we feel that we’re autonomous only because the voice in our heads narrates all our actions, explaining why we’re doing what we’re doing at any given moment, even though it actually has no idea.
In his long feature, Storr examines the power of the brain's ability to spin tales that obscure this truth, a process called “confabulation.” For most of us, these narratives give order to a largely chaotic world, an existence without clearly defined goals or purpose or meaning. Though confabulations are most severe in people with certain neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer's or amnesia, the tendency to fictionalize our own pasts is one shared by all people, says Psychology Today.
For most people, the narrative gives them special importance and explains their experiences, says Storr. It's the story of your life, as written by you—the just-so story of how you managed to get here from there.
The problem is, it's not necessarily true. And sometimes, writes Storr, this writing and rewriting of history has a dark side. In the case of John Pridmore, a British criminal who turned to God after he nearly killed a man, writes Storr: “It seemed as though the brain would do almost anything to maintain its feeling of control, even if that meant turning our selves and the plot of our lives inside out and upside down.”
Pridmore* convinced himself that he was smarter than everyone to justify being a criminal tough guy. Later, he convinced himself that he was redeemed by God, when he decided to leave his criminal life, and became a preacher who expounded on redemption. Basically, whatever he did, he told himself a story about why he was right to do it.
This is just one example of the brain's ability to spin and re-spin a most immaculate yarn. What's amazing—and a little bit scary—is how that special skill can allow a person to self-justify nearly any course of action.
*This sentence was corrected to say Pridmore, rather than Storr.