Narratives we tell to show
who we believe we are deceive
the listeners who are forced to go
with that one version they receive,
because we’ve may others we
can tell to different people to
impress them with our pedigree
and perspicacious points of view.
Do we from truth take long excursions
by changing tales about ourselves,
to find as many different versions
as books in volumes on our shelves?
No, there’s some truth in each refrain,
for every life is like a ballad
with different verses that explain
its variations, each as valid
as the next one, contradictions
all harmonized with disappearance
of prejudice about the fictions
that help to give the facts coherence.
Inspired by Benedict Carey, who writes about narratives we tell of our lives (“This Is Your Life (and How You Tell It, ” NYT, May 22,2007) :
For more than a century, researchers have been trying to work out the raw ingredients that account for personality, the sweetness and neuroses that make Anna Anna, the sluggishness and sensitivity that make Andrew Andrew. They have largely ignored the first-person explanation — the life story that people themselves tell about who they are, and why. Stories are stories, after all. The attractive stranger at the airport bar hears one version, the parole officer another, and the P.T.A. board gets something entirely different. Moreover, the tone, the lessons, even the facts in a life story can all shift in the changing light of a person’s mood, its major notes turning minor, its depths appearing shallow. Yet in the past decade or so a handful of psychologists have argued that the quicksilver elements of personal narrative belong in any three-dimensional picture of personality. And a burst of new findings are now helping them make the case. Generous, civic-minded adults from diverse backgrounds tell life stories with very similar and telling features, studies find; so likewise do people who have overcome mental distress through psychotherapy. Every American may be working on a screenplay, but we are also continually updating a treatment of our own life — and the way in which we visualize each scene not only shapes how we think about ourselves, but how we behave, new studies find. By better understanding how life stories are built, this work suggests, people may be able to alter their own narrative, in small ways and perhaps large ones. “When we first started studying life stories, people thought it was just idle curiosity — stories, isn’t that cool? ” said Dan P. McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern and author of the 2006 book, “The Redemptive Self.” “Well, we find that these narratives guide behavior in every moment, and frame not only how we see the past but how we see ourselves in the future.” Researchers have found that the human brain has a natural affinity for narrative construction. People tend to remember facts more accurately if they encounter them in a story rather than in a list, studies find; and they rate legal arguments as more convincing when built into narrative tales rather than on legal precedent.
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