We all believe in personal honesty. That is, we are honest with ourselves about what is real in our lives, about what we know, what we want, what our intentions are, and where we stand in the world. We may tell fibs and lies to the people around us—even to our nearest and dearest—but with ourselves, by ourselves, we are true.
Many spiritual paths such as Zen and self-help programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous require their followers to practice personal honesty. The Temple of Apollo at Delphi, seat of the ancient world’s most famous oracle, had “Know thyself” (gnōthi seauton) inscribed above the doorway. And that should be an obvious hint: when the most rigorous forms of self-knowledge and the voice of a god supposedly telling you the truths of the universe must urge you to be honest with yourself, perhaps personal honesty is not so commonly practiced as we assume.
You would think this was the easiest thing in the world, to know and understand yourself and your aims. After all, we live inside our own heads. Everything that passes through the human mind at some point must, we think, come before our conscious awareness to be recognized, evaluated, and either accepted or rejected. We can pick over our own thoughts and decide for ourselves what is true. So all of us should—at some point of reflection, confession, or intense personal struggle—be able to realize and state the truth about ourselves.
And yet, too often we don’t. Without the help of a Zen master, an AA sponsor, or the oracle of a god, we are capable of living in an almost complete state of denial, delusion, or personal amnesia—usually for years at a time. We can be cruel to people and call ourselves caring and helpful. We can indulge our senses and call it self-awareness. We can hobble our daily lives with nonproductive obligations and thoughtless debts, our bodies with excess pounds and neglected muscles, and our minds with useless habits and unexamined compulsions … and call it a state of freedom.
Why is this possible? I would contend such denials and delusions are a product of the human mind’s function as a story-making and myth-projecting machine. We all tend to make stuff up. We embellish the known facts. We redirect our minds from what we see to what we think we see. And we fill in the gaps when what we see is not a clear or complete picture.1
In part, this is a survival trait of the human brain and its sensory apparatus, and it operates on many levels. For example, our eyes evolved during generations in which we were both hunter and prey. We use close focus to examine the shapes of things that attract our attention and interest—for example the type composing the words you are reading right now—and then we study the images in that focus for their possible meaning and importance. But we also use the periphery of our visual awareness—by far the greater span—to detect movements, shadows, and hints of anomaly. These may either give us warning of threats, if we are operating in prey mode, or clues to concealed possibilities, if we are reacting as hunters and gatherers. The vulnerable naked human who does not sense and react to a sudden movement in the bushes can be surprised and killed. The hungry human who does not perceive the spots of a faun among the sun-dappled shadows of the underbrush, or react to the flash of color indicating ripe berries among the swaying leaves of the bramble, will eventually starve. In the same way, our ears react to the rustle of tree branches, the rhythmic pattern of footfalls, or the sound of our name in the babble of a crowd. Our skin senses the breeze as a touch, and interprets a touch as either potential caress or imminent attack.
Our brains were shaped to work from partial data, to flesh out vague perceptions, to make interpretations and decisions based on less than full knowledge. Sometimes, this processing goes haywire. A chemical imbalance, arising from illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, can cause a person to misinterpret the waterfall of sensory impressions that pour in continually from the sense organs and are categorized, sorted, and interpreted in certain parts of the brain. Scrambled auditory signals present themselves as coherent voices, and their speech and suggestions are directed by the memories and fears active in the person’s current thinking. Scrambled visual inputs become hallucinations and visions.
Most of the time, though, this processing from partial inputs works to our advantage. A shadow at the edge of our vision, or a sudden movement in the air against our cheek, causes us to duck and thereby avoid a blow.
By extension, we use the brain’s facility in working from partial data and incomplete analysis to make leaps of intuition and understanding when dealing with puzzles and problems, and in trying to understand the world around us. We work from clues to fill in the complete pattern and arrive at actionable decisions. We are all so good at this that we must be constantly reminded to use standards of evidence, rules of logic, and tests of our assumptions when trying to establish the truth about historical, scientific, or legal facts. We imagine and assume so much in our daily lives that we must be restrained when representing “the truth” in more formal circumstances.
One proof that our minds are, at the most basic level, story-making machines can be found in our dreams. In the deepest stages of sleep, the brain begins sorting the day’s impressions, turning short-term experience into long-term memory, salvaging some of the day’s thoughts and ideas, and discarding the rest. During this period, we are not aware of the memory sorting process.2 Instead, the brain entertains our dozing mind with made-up experiences, fictitious personal histories, adventures, fantasies, harrowing escapes, and other real-seeming sequences that bear only a distant relationship to our everyday life. Our brains tell us stories while we sleep.
Even when we are awake, our memories are not perfect reflections of actual experience, taking a faithful image like a piece of carbon paper3 or a mirror. Instead, our memories are associational systems. We tend to join together similar things in our memories—which is why mnemonics and other memory tricks work so well. We also edit our memories slightly every time we recall and think about them.4 That’s why techniques to induce a “false memory”—perhaps an interpretation of some childhood trauma, or the fact of trauma itself—succeed so well, because a skilled practitioner can lead us to modify our memories to fit a preconceived notion.
With all of this processing and massaging of facts and memories going on inside our brains, is it even possible to be honest with ourselves? Can we separate delusion and imagination from truth? I believe so … I hope so. If not, then life is a dream, meaning is fragmentary, and nothing much is more important than anything else.
But the snares of memory and delusion mean that finding and keeping the truth about ourselves is going to be hard work. It requires effort, self-examination, and a willingness to be stern with the weaker side of our natures and fearless in the face of dangers and strong temptations. But as the Zen masters, the AA sponsors, and the Oracle of Apollo all suggest, our lives are worth that effort.
1. Such is the nature of conspiracy theories.
2. See, for example, Memory Consolidation and REM Sleep at Serendip Studio, Bryn Mawr College, from January 9, 2008.
3. A relic of the typewriting age, “carbon paper” was used to transfer the impression of a striking key from one sheet of typing paper onto a second or third sheet behind it. A typist sandwiched the carbon-dusted paper between the sheets, where it acted like a supplemental typewriter ribbon. Of course, these days we just press Control-C and Control-V to copy and move pieces of digital text from one place to another. I suppose that, in another twenty years, I will also have to explain for the next generation what a typewriter and paper were.
4. See, for example, When Memories are Remembered, They Can Be Rewritten at National Geographic from May 20, 2013, or Your Memory Isn’t What You think It Is at Psychology Today from July 16, 2013.