We are fictional characters of our own creation


We envision and argue literary characters' inner lives, knowing there can be no truth about their true motivations or ideas. Is it possible that our own inner lives are likewise works of fiction?

The heroine of Anna Karenina throws herself beneath a train as it passes out of a station on the outskirts of Moscow towards the novel's conclusion. Did she, on the other hand, wish to die? There are several interpretations of this pivotal scene in Tolstoy's great work. Had the boredom of aristocratic life in Russia, as well as the fear of losing her boyfriend Vronsky, become so unbearable that suicide appeared the only way out? Or was her final deed just arbitrary, a theatrical display of despair that she hadn't fully considered even seconds before the occasion arose?

We pose such inquiries. But will they be able to provide answers? If Tolstoy says Anna has dark hair, Anna definitely has dark hair. However, if Tolstoy does not explain why Anna leaped to her death, Anna's motivations are undoubtedly hollow. We can try to fill in the gaps with our own interpretations and discuss whether or not they are plausible. However, because Anna is a fictitious character, there is no hidden truth about what she truly desires.

Assume Anna is a historical character, and Tolstoy's masterwork is a journalistic retelling of true events. The topic of Anna's motive is no longer a literary interpretation, but rather a historical one. Nonetheless, our technique of investigation remains the same: the same text would now be seen as presenting (perhaps incorrect) indications regarding the mental state of a real person, rather than a fictitious character. Rather than critics and literary experts, lawyers, journalists, and historians may present and discuss different views.

Let's pretend we're asking Anna herself. Assume that Tolstoy's tale was based on true events, but that the enormous steam engine hit the brakes just in time. Anna is secretly transported to a Moscow hospital, where she appears to be critically injured. Against all chances, she survives and decides to flee her past by disappearing. Anna is recuperating at a Swiss sanatorium when we meet her. Anna, like everyone else, will most likely be unaware of her genuine intentions. After all, she, too, must engage in an interpretive process: she seeks to put together an account of her actions based on her recollections (rather than Tolstoy's work).

Even if Anna gives a definitive explanation of her conduct, we may doubt that her version is any more compelling than others'. To be sure, she could have "data" that no one else has — she might recall the despondent words "Vronsky has left me forever" going through her thoughts as she reached the edge of the fateful platform, for example. Any such benefit, however, may be offset by the distorted lens of self-perception. Our perceptions of our own acts appear to attribute to us greater knowledge and dignity than could be apparent to an objective spectator, among other things. Autobiography should always be approached with caution.

Are we all fictional characters?

Isn't this also true of the stories we tell ourselves as we go through life? We've all heard the phrase that "journalism is the first rough draft of history," which is often referenced (attributed to Washington Post president and publisher Philip L. Graham, and many others). But we may also consider our stream of consciousness to be the initial draft of an autobiography. If autobiography requires some skepticism, the initial rough draft of an autobiography may require a double dosage.

In my book, The Mind is Flat: The Remarkable Shallowness of the Improvising Brain, I argue that modern neuroscience, psychology, and artificial intelligence (AI) push us even further: to the conclusion that the stories we tell ourselves about our motives, beliefs, and values are not only unreliable in their specifics, but are completely fictitious. They're improvisations, concocted in retrospect by the incredible storyteller that is the human mind. We know there is no proper answer concerning the genuine intentions driving Anna's behavior whether we fantasize, question, or dispute Anna's motives since Anna isn't real. Yet, when we interpret the acts of individuals around us, including ourselves, we employ the same story-telling machinery that our brains use to develop explanations for fictional characters' activities. We are, in a very real way, self-created fictional characters.

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Consider the following three lines of evidence. Then there's the neurology. The language regions in our left cerebral cortex generate the verbal justifications we make for our own conduct. This implies that language-generating machinery in the left cortex is utterly blind to the machinations of the right cortex in persons whose brains have been surgically split in half by cutting the corpus collosum that connects the left and right cortex. The left half of the visual field is seen by the right cortex, which also controls the left hand. As a result, you may anticipate persons with split brains to be completely perplexed when asked to vocally explain the movements of their left hand. But that is not the case! They're all too eager to concoct a plausible-sounding (but completely implausible) justification.

A person with a divided brain is asked to match drawings on cards to an image exhibited on a computer screen in a famous research by UC Santa Barbara's Michael Gazzaniga. The secret is that distinct pictures are displayed to the two sides of the brain: A chicken claw is displayed to the left (language) side of the brain, while a snowy image is shown to the right half. The participant then selects the picture card that most closely resembles the image. The right brain instructs the left hand to select an image of a snow shovel that, of course, matches the snowy backdrop. The left, language brain, on the other hand, is completely unaware of this; it has only ever seen a chicken claw. When asked to explain the acts of the right hand, the left brain responds quickly, fluently, and convincingly: the shovel was picked because you need a shovel to clean up the chicken shed. This is a really inventive response: the left brain is attempting to connect the chicken claw with the shovel. It's also clearly incorrect. But it's the fact that it's created at all, much alone fluidly and with conviction, that's remarkable. It leads one to believe that our left brain's "interpreter," as Gazzaniga refers to it, is always a master of creation, never having direct access to the true reasons of action.

The psychology comes second. We are storytellers about our own intentions, thoughts, and feelings, according to decades of research. We assume that after we have just gone across a high, swaying bridge, we find individuals more appealing (otherwise, why the adrenaline?). If you've received an adrenaline shot, you'll find bothersome conduct even more irritating (you interpret the adrenaline as a clue that you are really riled up). More recently, the extraordinary phenomena of choice blindness has demonstrated that people can be duped into believing they prefer one face, type of jam, or even political viewpoint over another — and may fluently and compellingly argue a decision they never made.

Last but not least, there is evidence from artificial intelligence. Experts from every discipline should be able to tell us what they know and why if we could expose (not just manufacture stories about) the true causes of our behavior. Consider what would happen if we could just save that information in a database and use it to recreate that skill in a machine. If only it were that simple! Artificial intelligence researchers tried this method in the 1970s, but it failed miserably. Experts, it turns out, have no notion how they diagnose diseases, predict the weather, or play chess: their explanations are both rife with flaws and wildly contradictory. After all, two millennia of philosophy have undoubtedly illustrated the perplexing problems and inconsistencies that come when we try to explain our daily claims about good and evil, freedom and responsibility, or the nature of cause and effect.

The mind is a phenomenally innovative, though wildly contradictory, storyteller, constantly providing explanations, theories, and interpretations, including of our own thoughts and behaviors. And these stories are so smooth and persuasive that we frequently misinterpret them as reports from a dark inner reality. Introspection, on the other hand, isn't some unusual inner view; it's the human imagination turned inside out.
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