Between Me and My Brain

By Hanna Brooks OlsenFollow

I like my brain. But my brain is also an asshole.

Idon’t remember the first time I realized that sometimes my brain wasn’t telling me the truth, but I think it was related to learning about unreliable narrators in high school lit.

This was a way of telling a story, my teacher explained, that makes the reader work a little harder, because you can’t be certain what is an event and what is their interpretation of the events. She never said in as many words that that’s how life is, too, but that’s what I took away from it.

The underlying subtext, then, was that everyone is an unreliable narrator in their own lives, because no one is omnipotent and no one can have all of the facts and everyone is just calling it as they see it.

But also, it underscored that I, myself, was an unreliable narrator, and what I thought were the plain facts were often not the plain facts at all.

If I were more poetic, I might think this is what pushed me into a career that is largely driven by answering questions with data and research, but I’m not and I think it’s probably a coincidence.

In the course of my life, my brain has served me very well. As a young person, much of my school work came easily—and when something didn’t come easily, I was typically able to figure out work-arounds, mnemonics, and other tricks to get by. I tested well (in part because, as a white person in a predominantly white school in a predominantly white state, I was set up to do so) and, despite inner struggle, I was considered “bright” or “gifted,” albeit a bit messy and distracted.

My brain also has some fundamental issues which, because of my lack of omnipotence, I didn’t realize were making some parts of my life unusually difficult.

In college, I was tested for a learning disability and ADHD and was diagnosed with both. That same year, I also began experimenting with medication for bipolar disorder. It turned out that the strong parts of my brain had been making up for the not-so-strong parts for years. I appreciate the overtime.

I’m now an adult. I use my brain every day and it’s one of my only marketable features. I live in fear that something will happen to my brain—a car accident, a fall in the shower, one too many cannabis-infused chewy candies—because without it, I would be unable to support myself. I also live with the knowledge that I’ll be on some form of medication for these shortcomings for the rest of my natural life.

There are little pieces of my brain that aren’t quite connected and, with the help of a battery of pharmaceuticals, some lifestyle interventions, and a lot of therapy, I’ve figured out how to override them. There’s a persistent, low-lying fear in me that something else will break and that I won’t be able to fix it.

Or that I won’t even know it’s broken in the first place.

A brain might lie to you and thus turn you into an unreliable narrator in countless ways. The technical term for this is cognitive distorions, and it’s extremely common across a host of mental health conditions.

Cognitive distortions have been studied for decades, since psychologist Aaron Beck first noted that, in his patients, many of their depressive symptoms were not only difficult to name and locate, they had actually become habitual.

A brain under the influence, so to speak, of cognitive distortions may incorrectly describe you physically (body dysmorphia, eating disorders) or create characters who aren’t there (schizophrenia). It may fail to see, understand, or accurately characterize the emotional realities of others (sociopathy, the autism spectrum). It may present your reality as darker (depression) or lighter (mania) than it actually is.

In a paper exploring the relationship between cognitive distortions and mental health, author Bradley Rosenfeld noted Beck’s findings that “one’s cognitions, arising from past experience, become habitual patterns of thought about the self, the world, and the future, which profoundly influence one’s affect and behavior.”

These cognitions, Beck found, “resided mainly outside of conscious control and occurred without volition.” They were automatic.

The brain that lies gets used to lying—to the point where the person who owns that brain most likely doesn’t know that it’s happening at all.

Sometimes my brain tells me outright lies. Other times, it hedges the truth. Most often, it gives me half-truths and I have to spot the part that’s not quite right.

This is difficult, when people aren’t great at telling the truth (or their truth), either.

As I’ve got older, I’ve struggled more and more with the idea of one person being a more reliable narrator than any other. I assume, most of the time, that there’s something I’m missing or something I’ve done incorrectly or some way that my brain is betraying me.

After all, I’m crazy.

Neurotypicals (or those who assume they’re neurotypical), I have found, tend to go through life with the belief that they are an omnipotent narrator. They default to the assumption they’re both always reliable and always right. After all, they are not crazy.

There’s a confidence to this that both vexes me and, if I’m being perfect honest, alarms me. Sometimes even disgusts me.

Don’t you know that brains can lie?

The disgust comes from my own baggage — the tension between me and my brain. I bristle at another person’s over-confidence in their read of reality because I live in fear of losing my own grip on it.

But also this kind of doubt could be really helpful to a lot of people. So many miscommunications and harmful beliefs are created and held and incubated because of the unshakeable belief that a person a.) can know the absolute truth and b.) is on the side of that truth.

Interestingly, too, there’s a circular nature to lying; our brains quickly adjust to the lies we tell. Research has shown that while lying feels bad at first, we soon become desensitized and used to the feeling and lie itself—leading to further lies.

Which is to say: Both people and their brains lie, and both people and their brains get used to it and become accustomed to doing it.

These are the things that my brain reminds me of, even when someone is telling me something that I know for a fact is incorrect. These are the things that make me double, triple, and quadruple check my sources. In some ways, I feel like my brain has done me a great service by being so untrustworthy; when you know someone is a liar, you’re more careful about trusting them.

Sometimes when I can’t sleep (thanks, brain, for that), I think about what it would be like to be omnipotent—to know everything, exactly as it is. I imagine it would be both comforting and exceptionally lonely, because you would always know when everyone around you was wrong, which would be most of the time.

But sometimes I also think about what it would be like to be confident that the world presented to you by your brain is at least similar—75% the same or more—to the world presented to others by their brains. That, I think, must be comforting and not at all lonely. Though I suppose (and this is pure conjecture) that if you’ve never doubted the veracity of what your brain tells you, there’s little comfort in the truth (or supposition of truth), because you’ve never known the shaky feeling of an unreliable narrator.

You’ve only ever read the story straight, or what you thought was straight, and didn’t know what was being left out.

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