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The stories we create shape our lives:

our identities, how we view the world, and what decisions we choose for our lives

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Are you Lucky?

(Richard Wiseman, University of Hertfordshire)

Newspaper

What are your thoughts of the lady's story above? Let's take a look.

 

We see the lady above formulating her story: Her colleagues are better than her because they could think of things which she couldn't. She is just not good enough. 

There are 2 reasons that led to her formulating such a story:

  1. This particular presentation, where she received negative feedback

  2. Past experiences, which shaped her view of herself compared to her colleagues

Let's take a look at reason 1.  What she wasn't aware of, was that her colleagues had been in a meeting with the boss earlier that week. They were merely repeating what the boss had told them. So in fact, her colleagues were not able to "think of things which the lady could not think of". The lady's negative story was triggered because of what neuroscientists call Amodal Completion - we see 2 discrete points "I was giving the presentation and should know the content well, and yet my colleagues seem to know it even better" and our brain fills in the gap with our story - "I'm just not good enough". 

However, we also know that a second reason for her formulating this story is the accumulation of previous experiences. Perhaps there had been previous projects where her colleagues had proven wiser. Or she might have made some big mistakes in the past. Even if we assume that her perception of past experiences is accurate, what if she had formulated a different story:
 

"My colleagues seem to have good ideas, how can I learn from them? Perhaps I am not as good as them, yet. But I can improve and get better. "

 

Have you been in a similar situation where you've not done as well, and lost confidence in yourself? When you felt you were inadequate and others were so much better?

 

The solution here isn't to go into some ridiculous hyper-optimistic state - "I'm just as good", or "I'm going to be super-smart in one week's time and out-perform everybody". Blind optimism is merely deceiving yourself. What we want is to ensure a story that accounts for the fact that we can change, learn, and get better - this improves our chance of actually doing well, as opposed to being trapped in imagined negativity. And we should believe this because our brains are designed to be able to constantly change and rewire - check out our chapter on neuroplasticity. 

 

The experiment:

  • 400 participants were invited to classify themselves as "lucky" or "unlucky".

  • Those who felt they were "lucky" were placed in one group, while those who felt they were "unlucky" in another

  • All participants were given the same newspaper.

  • They were asked to report back on how many photographs the newspaper contained

Results:

  • On average, the unlucky people took about two minutes to count the photographs

  • The people in the lucky group? Less than 10 seconds.

  • Why? The second page of the newspaper contained the message “Stop counting – There are 43 photographs in this newspaper.” This message took up half of the page and was written in font over 2 inches high.

  • Even though it was staring right at the participants, people in the unlucky group tended to miss it while people in the lucky group tended to spot it.

  • Just for fun, there was a second large message halfway through the newspaper. This one announced: “Stop counting, tell the experimenter you have seen this and win $250.” Only some people spotted this, all from the lucky group.  

  • People in the "unlucky" group missed the opportunities because they were still too busy looking for photographs.

It's important to get the correct story here. We don't get luckier just because we re-write your story to be "lucky". We won't hit the lottery just because we want to and believe so. As this experiment shows, the "lucky" and "unlucky" go through the same experience. The "lucky" weren't in a more advantageous position. However, those who saw themselves as lucky were able to be open to opportunities that came.  But thinking of ourselves as "unlucky" causes us to miss out on the same opportunities because we don't think they are there. 

You can read more about Richard Wiseman's finding here. 

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Wiseman's study reminds us of another phenomenon that might be familiar - the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, or the frequency illusion. When you:

- Buy something new

- Learn a new concept

- Learn about someone new

Suddenly you see the item or concept or discussions and features on the person everywhere. You didn't notice these before, but you see these things everywhere and on your Facebook and YouTube feeds. You meet people you didn't know interested in these areas. (And you like them more than average). 
 

[Included random rugby picture here, to hopefully induce the Baader-Meinhof effect on you. Rugby - my favourite sport and more or less all the good that humanity stands for. 

Try This!

  1. Stand up with your feet planted to the ground. 

    (Come on! It's going to be worth it. And it's only going to take 30seconds. If you're in a public space, get back to doing this!)

  2. Raise your right arm straight ahead of you and point forward. 

  3. With your feet still planted, turn your body clockwise as far as you can. Note the final position where you are pointing.
     

Ok, relax! Stand in a comfortable position, and close your eyes. Imagine yourself being a lot more flexible than you actually are. Picture in your mind now that you are able to turn your body around much further than you previously did. You've become so flexible that you can picture your body turning even more, a full 360 degrees. And still, you are able to keep turning. You are super flexible.

 

  • Now open your eyes, and go back to the starting position - feet planted, facing and pointing forward. 

  • Try turning again. Did you make it further than you did the first time?

  • Repeat the visualisation again. Imagine yourself even more flexible, and able to turn for 2 full rounds. 3 full rounds. 

  • And try steps 1 to 3 again. Did you go even further on the 3rd attempt? 

This is a very popular visualisation exercise used with athletes and it demonstrates how our stories affect our outcomes, and a change in our stories, in turn, changes our outcomes.

The impact of our stories on our outcomes can be seen in many other fields. When we believe in something, the effects become better. Placebos are quite a remarkable example.  In the video below, one of the grand poobahs of neuroscience, V.S. Ramachandran talks about the impact of placebos in treating depression:

  • Prozac is a common drug administered for patients suffering from depression (depression here is clinically assessed, and not self-proclaimed). 

  • Prozac has an effectiveness of about 70%

  • But what about placebos? What if you gave the patient a simple vitamin or sugar pill, that medically does not treat depression?

  • Turns out, placebos have an effectiveness of about 50%!

  • The effectiveness of the placebo is even more shocking considering that patients were told they were taking a placebo. 

  • Even when patients knew they were taking a placebo, half of them still recovered.

Video Credit: Building Your Brain for Success with Legendary Neuroscientist V.S Ramachandran | Impact Theory YouTube 

There are several other studies that show the effects of placebos. In this study, there was a significant improvement in the placebo group suffering from irritable bowel syndrome, even though they were explicitly told they were getting a “sugar pill” without any active medication. This is as compared to a control group that saw no change in their conditions. Another study was conducted on 160 volunteers who were asked to put their arm on a heating plate until they could no longer withstand the pain. All the volunteers were then given the same placebo cream. A third of the volunteers were given the placebo but were told that they had received a topical painkiller. A second third was given the placebo cream, but also received a 15-minute talk explaining how dummy drugs can work. The final third simply received the placebo. The first and second groups reported similar levels of pain relief, while the third group was left in uncomfortable pain. 

 

 The effects of placebos shed light on how wired our brains are to the stories we have created. Professor Ted Kaptchuk of Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, who runs research on placebos (like the irritable bowel syndrome study above) explains more:  

"People can still get a placebo response, even though they know they are on a placebo. You don’t need deception or concealment for many conditions to get a significant and meaningful placebo effectThe placebo effect is more than positive thinking — believing a treatment or procedure will work. It's about creating a stronger connection between the brain and body and how they work together. People associate the ritual of taking medicine as a positive healing effect. Even if they know it's not medicine, the action itself can stimulate the brain into thinking the body is being healed.

Change our stories to change our outcomes

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We're all familiar with the story of the elephant and the chain. The young elephant calf is chained to a peg to prevent it from escaping. The calf tries to pull the peg out, but at a young age, it simply doesn't have the strength. It resigns itself to being trapped by the chain and peg. This conditioning stays with the elephant even when it grows up to become the largest and strongest land animal. It doesn't change its story; it believes the story it has always believed in, even though reality has changed. 

If we really looked at our lives, a good number of us might find ourselves living in a constant loop of monotony.  Each day might feel long but the week, the months, and the years fly by, without us realising where the time has gone. Perhaps a good number of us hold on to stories like the chain and peg, stories that are no longer true.

 

Here's some work from Danish photographer Peter Funch that is so insidiously eerie it freaked me out. For nine years, from 2007 until 2016, Funch camped outside the Grand Central Terminal in New York, watching and photographing commuters during the morning rush hour between 8.30am and 9.30am. What started out to be photos of strangers grew in familiarity. He began to notice repetitions - weeks, month, even years apart: the same people, the same faces, the same gestures, the same clothes. Or as Teju Cole writes in the New York Times, "Each person was in the self-enclosed reverie of getting somewhere." Cole shares a poem from Thomas A Clark that is most apt:
 

Always, everywhere, people have

walked, veining the earth with

paths, visible and invisible,
symmetri
cal and meandering.

There are walks in which we tread in

the footsteps of others,

walks on which we strike out entirely

for ourselves.

Video Credit: How to Unlock the Full Potential of Your Mind | Impact Theory YouTube

A final video, to end this chapter on how we create and are affected by our own stories. I do think that Dr Dispenza overexaggerates the impact of thought in explanation, veering towards a more controversial field of psychoanalysis (which I caution against). But I do agree with his description of the repetitive nature of our lives, based on the stories we created. Changing some of our stories is essential if we want a change in our lives. 

Check out the practical tools page for further suggestions

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