We can’t always trust our gray matter when it comes to objective thinking

Many years ago, I attended some sort of leadership training course.

The woman conducting the course was memorable for several reasons. For one, she didn’t allow us to take bathroom breaks or to take notes, as she believed either habit would distract us from really listening. (Apparently, squirming with a full bladder and covertly taking notes on crumpled Kleenexes really enhances your retention skills.)

For another, she looked a little like Katie Couric, especially if Katie Couric wore nothing but the

type of dark-blue, gabardine pantsuits favored by dress codes at banks. (Another interesting sidenote: She could freehand draw a perfect circle on a chalkboard, without aid of compass or any other drafting device.)

But most astoundingly, Banker Katie pointed out something that managed to be as painfully astute as it was glaringly obvious: Our brains are meaning-making machines. They are built to compare, measure, interpret, translate, judge, pinpoint patterns and process everything that happens to us. They are beautifully engineered and keenly wired to pick up possible threats in the environment, to help us learn appropriate interpersonal behaviors, and to tap into past experience to inform how we might best react in the future.

And here is where gabardine Katie took time out of drawing perfect circles to really throw us for a loop. She basically told us that our brains would work beautifully — if only they weren’t jammed with “stories.” Stories are the narratives we create by ourselves to explain our life experiences. We forget that we are the ones who actually created those interpretations, and we live as if they are fact.

We live through this skewed, often-inaccurate, story-clouded filter, clamping onto any incident that jibes with our stories and dismissing anything that clashes with it. This creates a series of blind spots that hold us back from what we want in life and seriously hamper our personal power and peace of mind. And yet we hang onto them, partly out of habit, and partly because we get some intrinsic payoff in believing them: “Only schmoozers get promotions, so I’m just going to do the bare minimum and skate by.”

Since then, I have never forgotten the concept of how our flawed, meaning-making brains and story-building influence us. Sometimes these stories are painful; more often than not, they are hilarious. It is amazing the kingdoms of outrage we can build in our brains based on one innocuous incident.

For example, my friend, “Tabatha,” has a husband who has a habit of locking the door whenever she’s out in the yard for an extended period of time. He says he does this out of habit, because he used to live in an unsafe part of the country where he locked every door behind him. She views it as an unconscious desire to lock her out of the house so he can talk to his divorce lawyer, empty out her bank accounts and fly to Brazil to marry the swimsuit model he obviously met at his glamorous job working in a salvage yard near Gackle, N.D. (Some parts of this anecdote MAY have been fabricated to protect the innocent.)

I do this too. Someone doesn’t text back? Obviously, they’re mad at me. Someone texts back but doesn’t use enough exclamation marks? They’re DEFINITELY mad at me. My significant other doesn’t take out the garbage? Apparently, he is communicating to me that I don’t do enough housework, believes I am lazy, thinks I am fat and plans to fly to Brazil to marry the even more attractive sister of the aforementioned swimsuit model.

I just wish I I still had the notes from the seminar in which they taught you how to get beyond your stories.

Shoot. I think I blew my nose in them.

Readers can reach Tammy Swift at tswiftsletten@gmail.