by Pastor Doug Kings

Your brain has been lying to you—a lot. In fact, it’s one of its favorite activities. That’s the conclusion of an increasing number of scientists who study the workings of our brain. In short: don’t trust your thoughts.

In The New York Times this week, psychologist Adam Mastroianni warns us that “Your Brain Has Tricked You Into Thinking Everything Is Worse.” According to Mastroianni, our brain has two biases that distort our view of reality. On the one hand, it pays more attention to “negative information” about people and the world around us. That’s why we love and easily remember gossip and juicy stories about others’ foibles. This, of course, has been exploited by the media since its earliest days. Bad news always gets more attention than good. Hence the newspaper dictum, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

We are less aware of the other bias Mastroianni identifies. While attracted to it, our brain nonetheless forgets bad news faster than good, especially when it involves ourself. Negative experiences fade as time goes by, while pleasurable experiences remain fresher.

Combining these biases means that our negative experiences of the present tend to predominate, while our positive experiences dominate our remembrance of the past. Hence, the common viewpoint that “the world is going to hell in a handbasket” and we need to “get back to the good old days.”

Mastroianni goes on to tell of multiple studies showing that by both objective historical measures and subjective personal experience, this “past good, present bad” perception is wrong far more often than not. When the fallacy of this belief goes unrecognized, however, it can be easily exploited by marketers, media, and politicians.

Another even more profound trick our brain plays on us is reported in an essay this month on the website Big Think. Professor of neuropsychology, Dr. Chris Niebauer, says that based on recent discoveries, our sense of self is largely an illusion. In “Eastern philosophy says there is no “self.” Science agrees”, Niebauer argues that recent discoveries may be closing a fundamental gap between the Western and Eastern view of the person.

According to Niebauer,

The brain-powered individual, which is variously called the self, the ego, the mind, or “me,” lies at the center of Western thought….  This “I” is for most of us the first thing that pops into our minds when we think about who we are. The “I” represents the idea of our individual self, the one that sits between the ears and behind the eyes and is “piloting” the body…. This I/ego is what we think of as our true selves, and this individual self is the experiencer and the controller of things like thoughts, feelings, and actions.

The religious and philosophical traditions of Asia have a different view, however.

They say that this idea of “me” is a fiction, although a very convincing one…. This idea sounds radical, even nonsensical, to those who are trained in Western traditions. It seems to contradict our everyday experience, indeed our whole sense of being. But in Buddhism and other schools of Eastern thought, the concept of the self is seen as the result of the thinking mind. The thinking mind reinvents the self from moment to moment such that it in no way resembles the stable coherent self most believe it to be. Put another way, it is the process of thinking that creates the self, rather than there being a self having any independent existence separate from thought. The self is more like a verb than a noun.

Raised with a Western viewpoint, Neibauer recognizes its power. The current research in his field, however, now makes him question it.

Your illusionary self — the voice in your head — is very convincing. It narrates the world, determines your beliefs, replays your memories, identifies with your physical body, manufactures your projections of what might happen in the future, and creates your judgments about the past. It is this sense of self that we feel from the moment we open our eyes in the morning to the moment we close them at night. It seems all-important, so it often comes as a shock when I tell people that based on my work as a neuropsychologist, this “I” is simply not there—at least not in the way we think it is.

Like Mastroianni, Neibauer recounts a variety of studies and experiments which show the illusory and even deceptive ways our brain creates a sense of a controlling self. For example, testing persons who had their left and right brains separated to control their epilepsy, researchers told their right brain to perform a simple action. When asked why they did it, the interpretive left brain provided a completely fictious explanation for the action, rather than say “I don’t know” or “because you told me to.” For Neibauer such results are of far more than academic curiosity.

Why does all of this matter? The unfortunate truth is that each of us will experience plenty of mental pain, misery, and frustration in our lifetimes…. This mistake — this illusory sense of self — is the primary cause of our mental suffering…. For most of us, we worry about my work problems, my money problems, and my relationship problems. What would happen if we removed the “self” from these problems? 

[…] I know it’s a big claim to say that all these kinds of suffering are the result of a fictitious sense of self. For now, the essence of this idea is captured brilliantly by Taoist philosopher and author Wei Wu Wei when he writes, “Why are you unhappy? Because 99.9 percent of everything you think, and of everything you do, is for yourself — and there isn’t one.”

While associated with Eastern religion and philosophy, the idea of “no self” is not foreign to the Bible. The wisdom and prophetic traditions both see egocentrism as a distortion of God’s intention for human life and the primary source of human misery. Jesus centers his teaching on the idea that we must lose our illusory life in order to find our true life. And for Paul, this became his experience when he realized that in Christ he had “died” and that “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me.”

The notion of “losing oneself” has often been moralized as something we “ought” to do. But in both the East and West, the more basic teaching is that this is more a matter of discovery than of doing. Our true self, according to the Bible, is God’s own Spirit within us, and true happiness is found by living in oneness with God and our neighbor rather than as supposedly independent selves. Surprisingly, but then perhaps not, psychology may be confirming what Jesus calls the truth that makes us free.

Blessings in your life and ministry.