The story of our lives

Photo by Flickr user happysweetmama. Click for sourceWe live our lives in fragments, but make sense of them as stories. Scattered islands of experience are drawn together in personal travelogues that attempt explain how our erratic journeys brought us to the present moment.

This is perhaps our most natural and chaotic form of self-understanding but also one of the most vexing for psychology. We know our life stories are mostly fiction, despite their personal force, and much modern psychology has demonstrated how we tend to unknowingly self-justify rather than critically self-appraise.

But it is also the area where personal meaning is its strongest, and where our our lab studies fail most obviously in bridging the chasm between evidence and experience.

Nevertheless, some psychologists are trying to make the leap, and Jesse Bering unravels the yarn in a thought-provoking article for Scientific American.

Traditionally, the psychology of life history has a bad reputation. Known as psychobiography, it was originally created by the neurologist Paul Möbius who wrote biographies that not only described the events in the lives of great people, but also attempted to explain their psychological drives and motivations.

It was quickly picked up by Freud, who wrote a series of psychoanalytic biographies, on Moses, da Vinci, Dostoyevsky and Woodrow Wilson, that are widely regarded as his poorest works.

Replete with factual errors and implausible interpretations, he nevertheless spawned a tradition of indulgent psychobiography that sullied the practice for years to come.

In recent years, attempts at psychological biographies have re-emerged in more measured and more successful forms. Alan Elms’ 1993 book Uncovering Lives: The Uneasy Alliance of Biography and Psychology carefully coaxed the practice into the light, and contains some wonderfully sensitive biographies, including, ironically, of Freud himself.

Bering’s article is interesting because he touches on psychologists who are attempting to understand how personality influences our personal storytelling styles, and how our knowledge of autobiographical memory integrates into this process.

In a wonderfully recursive twist, researchers are now trying to integrate the fragments of lab-based knowledge into the fabric of personal narrative, because everything, ultimately, is a story.

Link to Bering on ‘The Psychological Science of Life History Research’.
Link to details of Elms’ awesome book Uncovering Lives.

One thought on “The story of our lives”

  1. What interests me is the way that we can change the way we shape our own narratives and what possibilities that opens up. And sometimes we have to change our narratives in discovering holes or huge errors that then change the shape.

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