Believing: The Neuroscience Of Reverse Truths
While my children’s adolescence cured me of most of my theories, a few fundamental ones survived, and are even more boldly illuminated against the backdrop of passing years. One of these survivors is the principle of reverse truths. In traditional science, truth is arrived at by proffering a hypothesis, then accumulating data to prove or disprove it; the data force the conclusion. Reverse truths work the opposite way—the hypothesis or belief creates the data.
Our assumptions select what we perceive in the world and determine what meanings we attach. Not only is believing necessary in order to see, but we bring about what we expect to happen. A story creates a reality. For example, a placebo is an inert pill, plus a story. The patient is prescribed expectations that, in the majority of cases, manifest. By anticipating an experience, we can create it. The story generates a truth so powerful it can reverse the pharmacological effects of the real medicine. The placebo’s story is a white lie, a fiction that becomes a truth.
The most vital reverse truth in our lives is our belief in our children. They look to us as a mirror of who they are, and they become what they see. If we trust and respect them, they become trustworthy and respect themselves.
Some parents have this reverse truth backwards, thinking that they will trust a child only after he or she has proven to be trustworthy. There are forward truths, but this isn’t one of them. Our belief in our children is taken in by them, and metabolized into their own belief in themselves. We convey to them in an unspoken message: “I’ll believe in you until both of us can.” When that affirmation isn’t there, they may spend their lives looking for that elusive approval.
Thomas Carlyle was right: “Tell a man he is brave, and you help him to become so.” As a parent, the trick is that you have to believe what you say, for feigned praise and inauthentic interest are forgeries immediately discernable to a child’s expert eye. I see this reverse truth professionally as well. When I work with practicing professionals (such as doctors and financial professionals) and performance professionals (actors and athletes), I have to believe in them so they can believe in themselves, with an unspoken, “I’ll believe in you while you teach me why, until both of us know.” Which is why I only work with clients in whom I really believe.
A corollary of believing in my children was to believe their words, their truthfulness. When both my children were very young, I told them that I would never lie to them and would always believe everything they told me as well. I knew then the responsibility that placed on them to always tell the truth.
On a Father’s Day many years ago now, my son’s last before leaving home and starting college, I found a letter from him at my bathroom sink. A passage in it addressed his perception of this reverse truth: “You never lied to me and I have never lied to you. Sounded stupid at first, but as time passed, it became more important, and I realized that I never would. This is a relationship few others have ever had.”