The Crime Your Brain Commits Against You (And What to Do About It)

In 1932, Frederic Bartlett was working at Cambridge University when he conducted one of the most famous cognitive psychology experiments of all-time.

For this research study, Bartlett recited a Native American folk tale called “The War of the Ghosts” to each participant. Then, Bartlett followed up with each person several times over the following year and asked them to tell the story back to him.

As you might expect, the story shortened over time as participants forgot certain details.

What wasn’t expected, however, was that each person adapted the story to fit their expectations of a “normal” world. You see, each participant was British and this Native American story had a few cultural details that would have seemed out-of-place in British society.

Each subject adjusted the story so that it would make more sense in the British view of the world. Confusing details were slowly altered each time the story was retold. Participants began to emphasize the more rational parts of the folk tale. The order of events were shifted around to make more sense.

Bartlett’s research was the first major study that proved how our beliefs about the world can actively change the way we remember and interpret information.

But why did the subjects change the story? And how can this help you master your mental habits and achieve your goals?

Here’s the deal…

The Power of Schemas

In psychology terms, Bartlett’s subjects were displaying what is known as a “schema.” A schema is a set of preconceived ideas that your brain uses to perceive and interpret new information.

We form schemas based on our experiences in life. Once they are formed, however, schemas have a tendency to remain unchanged — even in the face of contradictory information.

In other words, your brain creates an “auto-pilot” version of how it thinks the world should work, and sometimes you keep using it even when it’s no longer true or helpful. This is why Bartlett’s subjects changed the details of the story. The original version didn’t fit the way they thought the world should work, so they adjusted it until it seemed more reasonable.

This is important because schemas not only impact the memories you have about the outside world, but also the things you believe about yourself.

For example…

If a mother tells her daughter she looks like a tom boy, her daughter may react by choosing activities that she imagines a tom boy would do. Conversely, if the mother tells her she looks like a princess, her daughter might choose activities thought to be more feminine… the individual chooses activities based on expectations instead of desires. (Source)

Imagine that little girl after she has grown up. It’s easy to see how the schemas and beliefs that were formed early on could continue to impact her actions years later.

Unlearn What You Believe to be True

The idea to write this article was sparked by a reader named Kim who emailed me and said, “Sometimes we carry old beliefs around, unknowingly, that don’t serve us anymore.”

Schemas can be like this sometimes. You have old beliefs and experiences that tend to push you in a certain direction or color your thoughts in a certain way … but they aren’t necessarily serving you anymore.

It’s good to take a step back and think about your beliefs about life. Ask yourself, “Is this true? Or am I just limiting myself with these beliefs?”

For example…

  • Getting healthy — is eating junk food really a way to “treat yourself” and “enjoy the good stuff in life” … or are you telling yourself a story that isn’t really true?
  • Building a business — do you really need to wait until X happens before you start that side business or startup? Or are you just telling yourself a story that allows you to maintain what you’re currently doing instead of chasing what you’re capable of doing?
  • Traveling the world — is it true that “only single people without kids” can travel far and wide? Or is that just an expectation left over from what you have typically seen?

What old beliefs are you still carrying that aren’t serving you anymore?

Sometimes you have to unlearn the things that you believe to be true. You don’t have to see the world the same way you’ve always seen it. Just because it was true in the past, doesn’t mean it’s true today. And just because you learned something one way doesn’t mean you learned it the best way.

Don’t let yesterday’s beliefs dictate the story that you live out today.

35 Comments

  1. I agree, but believe that often these thoughts are so difficult to undo that a person needs help. It is sometimes impossible to undo certain attitudes on ones own.

    • It’s true Ehud, sometimes we do need the perspective that others can provide. But remember that they too are looking through their own filters of beliefs. The only way to truly determine who and how you are and desire to be is to do the work for yourself.

      To question and answer for you, it takes perseverance and a strong desire to know you for you without someone else’s critical nature or judgment. Most times you can feel it in your body. If there is a heaviness or a lightness, this is your truest indication.

      Good luck with your pursuit of your truth.

      Joan

  2. Excellent article. Beliefs are things we take to be
    true but they may or may not be true. Very important
    that we examine our beliefs from time to time and
    determine if they are working for or against us.
    A timely reminder. Thx.

  3. Hey James, you are right on the money as usual. It seems that every article you write speaks right to something that’s going on with me, and I am grateful I found your blog.

  4. So true, I think you are on to it! beliefs are quite complex though, some are created in times of trouble so we can get through something difficult.. some are passed to us by indoctrination. Important to know the difference. Then one can do something about them. Otherwise, it is difficult to change them. But what do I know… that is a belief I may have to look closer at, that it is difficult to change beliefs unless we know where they came from! Humm…..

  5. Boy am I guilty of this one. I actually convinced my son he was a midget! He asked me about the difference between dwarfism and midgets and I had told him that a midget was a person who was under 4’10″. Unfortunately, I failed to tell him that I meant an ADULT person under 4’10″. Years later, I heard him refer to himself as a midget and I said “Don’t say things like that” and he said “But Mom it’s TRUE. I am under 4’10″, so I AM a midget.” I felt absolutely terrible, especially since he had always been the smallest kid in his class. Interesting thing, in the year or so after I explained the situation to him correctly, he had a significant growth spurt and is now a fairly normal 5’7″ (he’s 15 now).

  6. This reminds me of the importance of self-image. You and your readers may want to check out Psycho-Cybernetics by Dr. Maxwell Maltz

    He popularized the idea that the self-image dictates our behaviors, beliefs, and even basic talents and abilities. It’s a fascinating read and one of my all time favorite books.

  7. In terms of weight loss, I’ve been reading, for inspiration, an older book, Elizabeth Lay’s “Thinning from the Inside Out.” She was a literary agent who lost a lot of weight and kept it off. She talks about acknowledging this “fat self” that was just a small part of her; but, it was sneaky and exerted a lot of control. She talked about getting to know both that small “fat self” and her “thin self” that wanted what was best for her. I started thinking about where did this powerful “fat self” come from, in my own life. Family history, beliefs, life events, ways of coping, some better than others. I decided my “fat self” was like a bratty two-year-old wanting its own way. Will explore further. It may help to realize that “fat self,” or whatever negative belief system we’ve allowed to be in operation, is only as powerful as we let it be. A two year old can “run the show,” but that needn’t be the case. Maybe it really wants a hug. So we’re talking about self-nurturing, someone big being in charge of the scared out-of-control baby. Some of this is revisiting old themes. It’s sort of like housework, I guess. Never finished. Thank you, James. Your posts are always an inspiration. Keep writing!

    • I really like what you said here, Christina. What stood out the most for me was when you said the two year old may need nurtured/hugged. I had very strict/harsh parents and I tend to ‘blast’ the many two year olds still raging inside me, when perhaps they need to be treated with some care and respect so they can (finally) grow. (I’m tearing up so it’s probably true – the little buggers just want some kindness and love). I’m glad you shared your thoughts. Thank you.

  8. Great stuff, James! Love the reference to the experiment. I’m unlearning a lot of things from the past that have been limiting me. It’s hard, but I’m glad I am aware of them. Serious progress is to be made!

  9. So beautiful James. That word “believe”. Believing is an action, we take this action because it springs from our very real need and desire for truth and wisdom that will lead us soundly through life. It spreads out a dynamic, golden trail toward much, much more. I pray for wisdom and sound logic, then hit the books. I must “believe” because I don’t live by bread alone. Down with robots, we are far better than them, we are humans, we believe.

  10. Thank you James; always interesting. I am thinking that I know at least 2 really good methods of working with limiting beliefs and I do work with them one is a technology from the buddhist tradition called “feeding your demons” where you explore then personify the limiting part and step into its shoes to find out what it needs and more importantly how it will feel when it gets what it needs.then the part where you step back I to your own shoes and dissolve into a nectar of that feeling, and there’s a final part where an ally appears. It’s really good and can be v quick too. The other is Byron Katie the Work. I’m wondering whether there’s a big one which maybe you reach after a while if you’re lucky and this changes the landscape of your psyche forever. Or maybe it’s just me being dissatisfied no matter what brilliant changes happen. I’m going to work on that one next – the demon if dissatisfaction!!!!!

    • Hat Hari,

      I found this on-line, perhaps it will be of some use to you…

      A Cherokee Legend

      “…An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

      “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

      The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

      The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

  11. LOVE IT, James.

    Thanks for this.

    For me, brain science is essential for everyone to understand – for example, it also helps in empathizing with other people (an essential aptitude in the conceptual age if you believe this form of thinking). Male and female brains are wired fundamentally differently – so during emotional situations, for example, male brains tend to remember the feeling of the situation but not the details, and vice versa. Simply understanding that small fact can help you empathize with a partner (and even laugh with each other) rather than get into a fight.

    There are many more examples where consciously understanding how our brains function helps us in everyday life – I can’t wait to see if you write more about it!

    Be well

  12. I observe and teach a practice called mindfulness, it has its roots in ancient buddhist writings and the practice of meditation.

    I specifically use a therapy form of the practice called MiCBT

    All that you covered in your article, has a common thread of being able to control your thoughts, recognizing them for what they are and taking action on them. The power is to not allowing the reactive mode to dictate your actions.

    Regards Russell

  13. James, I find your writing to be inspiring and empowering. Understanding brain science as Marshall stated is key to helping us function better and improve our well-being in life. Personally I learned the power of changing the story we tell ourselves after my mom died when I was thirteen, but it would take me 20 years and the death of my son to become conscious of the specific actions that I was taking to change my story. Today, I hope that these actions will empower and inspire others. The work that you are doing is priceless. I appreciate you.

  14. We interculturalists have been saying what Mr. Clear has said for decades, but he does so in clear, simple language and uses examples that apply to daily life. Very nice article.

  15. I wonder how much deeply embedded religious indoctrination hinders our true development?

    For many years I was under the impression that there was a god in a toga looking out exclusively for me. I’ve since modified my thinking. Thankfully, I now know that there is no one coming to save me.

    It’s all up to me, some luck and work.

    Really enjoyed your article.

    Thanks!
    Ruben

  16. Gosh! An amazing article that saved my brain from belief-traumatic-syndrome.

    It totally waked me up and gave me a total clarity on how our brain subconsciously registers it,of the things that is eventually affects the whole way of life. So the brain is more like a computer chip after all. Haha! Amazingly mind-blowing article, James sir!

  17. Great blog post. I find so much truth in the comment about traveling. I am a single mom with kids and I assume I will not travel until they leave home. I have assigned categories for what I can accomplish based upon my current circumstances.

  18. I am a grown woman who is just beginning to climb out of some of the results of a poor relationship with an emotionally controlling parent and older religious sister when I was growing up. I have learned enough to know that once I realize the bad effects of some of their behaviors on me, I can dispense with blame and move on becoming the person I want to be. However, it can difficult be to see beyond the picture that others have painted of you; you can think them unfair and even mean-spirited but still be under the influence of them. It is interesting to me how many people become hateful towards belief in a God because of the foolishness of religious people. For me, in spite of being the victim of misguided and hateful religious foolishness in my sister, it has been my belief that has helped me break free of her control. It is knowing we are, none of us, ever totally “right” but we are known and loved truly by someone bigger.

    I have really benefited from reading your blogs for the short time I’ve been getting them. Thank you for your work!

  19. Thanks for this post James. I really connected with it, especially with my current decision. A very good friend of mine is getting married in Chicago, I live in Alaska, and just started Grad school. I want to do exceptionally well in my studies so part of me tells myself, don’t go, you’ll have trouble with school when you return and the other part of me says…GO! You see, she recently lost her father and if it were me, the more of my friends around me the better! Have you been faced with something like this? If so, how did you make your choice?

  20. There is a saying, “You know what you know. You know what you don’t know. But you don’t know what you don’t know.”

    How can you change something you don’t know or aren’t even aware of, as needing changing?

  21. James, this is an important topic, so thanks for about it. We can use a schema as a way to help us learn new things, connecting what we already know and have experienced, to new experiences and ideas. I wrote about this on my blog: http://convergenceinthecommons.com/2013/03/21/using-a-schema-to-understand-haiti/, with relation to how a schema helps us become a better reader. So a particular schema may not just be a problem – as you suggest in your article – it may also be a way of framing something new.

    Thanks again for this topic!

  22. A great article. It reminded me of breaking old habits like always seeing the glass half empty. It also reminded me of the many superstitious things my ancestors brought with them from Italy.

    As I have seen, as you age, it gets harder to break schemes, step out of your shoes and see the world from a different perspective. But it’s always worth a try.

  23. BINGO! Once again, thanks, James. You often seem to just know where my mind is and what I am thinking. Throwing up blocks to a new business? Most likely. Going to resume daily application without keeping track of depth or quality — just daily application. Listen to a new voice.

Leave a comment Share your knowledge and experience.