Many Narratives. All true.

June 13, 2023 โ€” I often write about the unreliability of narratives. It is even worse than I thought. Trying to write a narrative of one's own life in the traditional way is impossible. I am writing a narrative of my past year and realized while there is a single thread about where my body was and what I was doing there are multiple independent threads explaining the why.

Luckily I now know this is what the science predicts! Specifically, Marvin Minsky's Society of Mind model.

The Model

You have a body B and mind M and inside your mind are a number of neural agents running simultaneously: M = \set{A_1, \mathellipsis, A_n}. Let's say each agent has an activation energy and at any one moment the agent with the most activation energy gets to drive what your body B does. It is very easy to see what your body does. But figuring out the why is harder, because we don't get to see which A_i is in charge.

Easy to explain the why behind basic actions

When you eat some food, drink some water, or go pee, it can be easy to conclude that your "hunger agent", or "thirst agent", or "pee agent" was in charge.

Easy to explain the why when following orders

When you are following orders it can also be easy to explain the why because you can just say person Y told you to do X.

Harder to explain more interleaved threads

When I am trying to explain actions across a longer time-frame it is more difficult. The agents in charge change.

Sometimes I take big risks and I can say "that's because I like taking big risks". Later I might be very cautious and I can say "that's because I am very cautious". This is a conflicting narrative.

The truth is I have agents that like risk, and I have agents that are very cautious. So the true narrative is "First, part of me, Risky Agent X, was in charge and so took those huge risks then later another part of me, Cautious Agent Y, took over and so that's why my behavior was very cautious".

Access to information problem

It's also difficult to explain why you did something because your Narrative Agents don't necessarily have the necessary connections to figure it out. Minsky had the brilliant insight that a friend who observes you can often describe your why better than you. Your Narrative Agent that is currently trying to explain your why of an action might not have visibility of the agents that were in charge of the action, and so cannot possibly come up with the true explanation. But perhaps your friend observed all the agents in action and can tell a more accurate story. I try to have a couple of deep talks a day with friends, and besides just being fun, it is amazing how helpful that can be for understanding ourselves.

"I" versus "Part of Me"

When speaking of what you did you can use the term "I".

But when speaking of why you did it it's often more accurate to use the phrase "part of me".

How to write a true autobiography

If someone wants to write a true autobiography one approach is to just stick to the simple facts of what, when, and where.

It would probably be a boring book.

But to get into the why and still be accurate, it probably would be best to tell it as a multiple character story.

Our brains are like a ship on a long voyage inhabited by multiple characters (picking up new ones along the way) who take turns steering. Impossible to fit that into a single narrative.

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