Review: “The Self Delusion” by Gregory Berns

Reading Time: 2 minutes
“The Self Delusion” by Gregory Berns combines brain science, psychology, and the craft of fiction writing to explain how we create our own narratives — and can rewrite them.

By occupation, Gregory Berns is a brain scientist. But as he points out in his latest book, “The Self Delusion: The New Neuroscience of How We Invent — and Reinvent — Our Identities,” you really can’t say anyone “is” anything.

The self — one’s identity — is a complex narrative made up of our own spotty and selective memories, plus evolutionary and learned behaviors, plus how other people see us and respond to us, plus the groups with which we associate and identify.

And there’s one more plus: the stories we tell ourselves and others. This is the province of psychology, self-help books — and of literature.

Berns discusses all of these influences in addition to his own specialty: neuroscience. The science is the whole basis of this book and dominates the first and second parts.

But he spends entire chapters on storytelling, which is outside the worlds of science and social sciences. Much of the narratives we tell about ourselves comes from the stories we learn as children.

Berns deals with the basic models of plot such as the Hero’s Journey and Rags-to-Riches (or Riches-to-Rags). Scholars have found only a limited number of story arcs, and most writers are familiar with them. Berns uses Joseph Campbell’s model, which identifies variations on the Hero’s Journey as the mono-myth.

So how do we reinvent our identities, as promised in the subtitle? We do what writers do when our agents or editors tell us the story isn’t working. We rewrite the plot to make it fit.

In literature, that could mean introducing a plot twist that forces the character to make different choices. In this Christmas season, think of Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” or George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Those moments when the character sees the light make for a radical change.

But real life is more complicated. We can change our choices but often we can’t change our circumstances.

Or can we?

Berns says the science supports what hundreds of self-help books and coaches tell you: To change your life, make a plan and follow it. Map out the steps you’ll have to take in order to get you there. Then follow that new path to the new narrative.

In other words, in the NaNoWriMo of life, sometimes you need to be a planner instead of a pantser. Or maybe a little of each: a plantser.

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