In 1953, an epileptic had brain surgery to try to relieve the seizures he was experiencing that were making his life a nightmare. A neurosurgeon, William Beecher Scoville, removed a piece of Henry Molaison’s brain about the size of an apple, and cured him of his seizures.
Unfortunately, the operation also robbed H.M. (as he came to be called) of his memory. He lived the rest of his life in the moment, but not in the wonderful sense the Zen masters mean. Rather, as he saw the same nurses and doctors day after day, he greeted them as if for the first time, each time. He couldn’t live on his own, as he was incapable of forming long-term memories, and experienced life as a series of fleeting moments.
His brain thus became the world’s second most famous (after Einstein’s) because of what it told us about how memories are formed. H.M. and his brain were studied right up to 2008, when he died, and his brain was frozen and sliced for further research after his death.
Now researchers at UC San Diego have analyzed H.M’s brain in detail in ways that were not available in the past, and it turns out that some of the earlier conclusions may have to be modified based on this finer-grain research. The key insight (out of many) then was that H.M.’s hippocampus was removed, leading neuroscientists to theorize that it was essential for the formation of memory.
Now it appears that the orbitofrontal cortex was also affected. The possible inference is that its role in connecting emotion, rewards, and decision-making is important to memory formation too.
What’s the lesson for public speakers? The through line from emotion, to memory, to decision-making is clearer than ever. And that’s a drum that I’ve been banging for some time. To change people’s minds, you need to get beyond the information dump that unfortunately characterizes too many speakers’ approaches to speaking, and get to deep emotions and memory, because that’s where decisions are made. To do that you need to tell stories, and not just anecdotes, but powerful stories.
Mr. Spock’s Brain
Why does this approach work so much better than information dumping? Most of us have this idea that we can call the “Mr. Spock Theory of the Brain,” after the Star Trek character known for his logic and ability to keep his emotions under control. So, for example, we imagine that we get a thought, such as, “I’m thirsty,” and then we direct our bodies to act on that thirst, reaching for a glass of water. Neat, logical, and very Spockian.
But it turns out that our bodies don’t work that way. What actually happens is that we get an unconscious intent or desire—like thirst—and then our bodies start acting on that intent or desire. Only after that—entire nanoseconds later—do our conscious minds catch on to what’s happening. In effect, our conscious minds say, “I just noticed that I’m reaching for water. I must be thirsty. Yes, that’s it. I’m thirsty. Good thing I’ve got a drink of water heading my way.”
That’s how we make decisions.
That’s counterintuitive, and it probably makes you a little uncomfortable. But that’s the way it is. Our conscious minds are just along for the ride, like one of those birds that sits on a hippopotamus, picking off the bugs that swarm around the beast.
How Our Minds Really Work: Not So Much
We’re barely in control of our simplest, most basic needs, let alone our higher-order wishes and desires.
Now, let’s be clear that most of the time unconscious control of decisions and moments, like that of slaking thirst, is a good thing. If you were aware of everything your unconscious mind took care of, from keeping your heart beating and your body temperature relatively constant to monitoring your surroundings for incoming hazards, you’d quickly be overwhelmed by the sheer tediousness of it all. There’s a good reason why most of that stuff is run—beautifully—by your unconscious mind. It does it really, really well, so “you” (aka your conscious mind) don’t have to.
That frees up your conscious mind for more interesting things and important moments. But the problem with the arrangement is that it leaves you out of touch with how your decisions are made, and that piece of the brain puzzle is a lot more important for playing well in the sandbox we’re all playing in – the world of leaders, speakers, and decisions.
In the end, then, to affect decision-making, you have to get to that point in time and brain where the decision is made, in the unconscious mind, and influence that. And that means grappling with emotions – and stories. Because information doesn’t affect that murky unconscious world of intent, desire, and decision. But stories do.
Stories have to be the stuff of your speeches because they are the stuff of our unconscious desires, our passions, and our dreams.
I go into these issues in more detail in my forthcoming book, Power Cues, due out May 13.