Myths: How Stories Structure Our Thoughts

Little more than a year ago, I was asked to give a talk to a large gathering of the general public, discussing the topic of my choice.

The audience, though ‘general’ of sorts, would be made up largely of affluent individuals, I was told – some still working, some retired, but all quite intelligent and eager to jump at the chance of debate. As I toyed around with the topic, I landed on a subject I had written about years ago: Mental health and the philosophies surrounding it. As I took the stage, readying my microphone, the strangest, most off-script question came to me: “How many of you have ever had a dream where you were falling?” The audience raised their hands sporadically. “Look around,” I said, “if you don’t know each other, if you’ve led distinctly different lives, if you have different thoughts, beliefs, and values in your lives, how is it possible that you’ve all had the same dream?”

In effect, if you’ve ever woken up and wondered about whatever it was that had emotionally jolted you whilst in slumber, it only takes a simple Google search to discover that the strangest of dreams that are drummed up by our subconscious are not only odd, but significantly more common than you could ever have imagined.

If we lead such distinct, individual lives, how is it possible that when we enter into sleep, the same themes emerge, regardless of country, religion, or clout?

According to Jordan Peterson’s book, “Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief”, the reason our dreams may be so similar (though I am extrapolating from his basic ideas here) is perhaps because, as humans, just as we are hardwired to see the world, physically, we so too are hardwired to see the world psychologically – through stories and myths, which are filled with respective meaning and symbolism. Indeed, the universal themes in myths that emerge seem to reflect certain universal themes we encounter – like conception, birth, tragedy, death and rebirth, themes which exist from Buddhism and Christianity through to ancient mythology – regardless of our walk of life.

Differing from the scientific way we reason about the world (which is largely based on describing phenomenon, creating hypotheses around that phenomenon for when we change certain variables leading to that phenomenon, and testing it out, then describing the phenomenon and approving upon the process again), myths, on the other hand, according to Peterson, define behaviour: What we should do and how we should act.

But why might it be so important to understand stories in such a way that is similar to the way we are hard-wired for sight or sound? Perhaps it is because the idea of myths and stories give us a strong and foundational sense of cause and effect that goes unparalleled except through our own actions in the world, which could be too costly to bear. The power of myth, here, is that we don’t have to act in follow; we are safeguarded from the perils that could be, and that perhaps have been, traversed by successful and unsuccessful others, as per the philosopher David Hume’s explanation of the need for stories in our lives. In this sense, myths and stories, while perhaps hardwired within us, allow us to learn, deeply, what certain actions have certain consequences, so that we may avoid troubles and move towards acting in a way in which we ‘win’.

A particular domain which highlights this well is in the romantic sphere, often rife with hurt feelings and spurned partners; sometimes rejected with great reason, and at times, with none. What I have found, many times, from pained students, clients, and friends, who have similarly been spurned, is a deep regret, a deep sadness, a deep need to know why. Those who do best after a break up, however, are generally the ones who know why; who have a cause an effect, knowing what they or their partners have done to lead to the break up. Those who do the worst are those who are given no why, no explanation, no cause. In other words, they’ve been given no story to help them see any sense of cause and effect; they are left in unchartered territory. In cases like this, wherein a spurned partner receives no story as to why the relationship has ended, not only is the pain massively prolonged, but the obvious advice is to move on by yourself, lack of coherent narrative aside. The issue with that, from a ‘stories’ perspective, however, is that when someone is rejected and refused honest answers about why the relationship ended, they are left depleted and the advice to ‘get your own closure’ infuses the notion that the person who has just been rejected is now responsible for moving past a decision they do not fully understand (and therefore cannot psychologically reconcile), and did not make (and are thus insufficiently prepared to navigate). The devastation that comes from a break up is thus not only caused by the partnership that is lost, but also by the lack of clarity, the lack of story, around why the relationship was dissolved.

But why does knowing the reason for a break-up matter so much?

Inherently, because we are hardwired for stories, we also understand the world through stories in our psyche, ourselves: We create a past, present, and future, and navigate our world through this cognitive structuring. Most healthy intimate relationships generally have a good sense of where they’ve been, where they stand, and where they are heading. Similarly, within the story structure, we have a good sense of who we are and how we feel within each part of the story, although this can change depending on our current mood when reflecting. When a one-sided break-up occurs, however, it traumatically interrupts the story for the person on the receiving end, particularly if the break-up was unexpected. By knowing the reasons why the relationship isn’t working, the initiator of the break-up has already sorted out his or her story. However, the person being broken up with is thrust from being in safe psychological territory into an abyss, particularly if the relationship was seemingly safe, secure, and serious. A similar analogy can be made, for instance, when one discovers his or her partner has transgressed the sanctity of the relationship. When given closure, we can restructure our past, present, and future in a healthy way, through understanding what went wrong and reconfiguring our story accordingly.

When we are refused closure, however, attempts to understand what happened flood our conception of our past, present, and future.

We are left to wonder, ‘what did I do?’, ‘how could someone I thought I knew so well do this to me?’ and ‘how can I trust myself to make future decisions when my past decisions have caused me so much pain?’. Without answers of why a break-up occurred, the way we view our reality through our past-present-future story structure can become warped, because we lose our sense of what we know about who we are and the trust that we have in our decisions. While this is generally mediated by things like personality, social comparison, available others, attachment styles, and mood, not receiving closure can nevertheless be a deeply traumatic experience. In cases such as these, I often tell my clients that they may find peace in confronting their ex-partner’s hurtful actions by writing him or her a letter without expecting a response, which they may or may not choose to send. A specific type of writing, research shows, can be particularly effective in lessening post-dissolution distress: Examining the relationship through a redemptive lens, wherein one focuses on the positive outcomes that arise from a break-up, or a negative event. Writing about the relationship in this way, over the course of 4-days, has been shown to reduce the emotional suffering that can come from a relationship ending, perhaps because you are re-writing your own.

In fact, this may be why ‘popcorn therapy’, as it is known, can be so effective in salvaging relationships: According to research published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, exposing a couple to stories in the form of movies may just be a trick to saving a marriage. The research, comprised of a study designed to address gaps in existing research exploring the efficacy of skill-based programs which help prevent divorce, randomly assigned 174 engaged and newlywed couples to a 4-session, 15-hr small-group intervention which taught conflict and problem resolution (known as ‘PREP’) or skills in acceptance, support, and empathy (known as ‘CARE’), or a 1hr session on relationship awareness (‘RA’) where couples received a list of 47 movies with an intimate relationship as a major plot focus and instructed to watch one movie per week together and discuss 11 open-ended questions about the movie and how it relates to their relationship as a couple for about 45 minutes following each movie.

The results of the efficacy of each program was then compared to couples receiving no treatment at all.

The research found that couples receiving no treatment at all divorced at a rate of 24% compared to couples who completed PREP, CARE, or RA, who divorced at a lesser rate of 11%, regardless of the intervention. This means, whether one received specialized training or simply discussed the stories presented on movies on the list, a couple’s chance of dissolving the relationship did not differ; they were both 13% lower than couples who received no intervention.

What’s encouraging about these psychological theories surrounding stories and their importance for our psychological structuring of the world is mostly that if you want to change a direction in your life – whether that’d be your break up, your relationship, or indeed, even your dreams, you all but have to imagine it as though a tale – not only then will your story can change for the better, but you will build a new one.

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