Is Your Brain Lying to You?

Your brain is a liar. It makes assumptions not rooted in fact, draws conclusions that are more about fear than any kind of logical argument, and has insights often manipulated by the media and other compelling stories.” Christine Fonseca

If you prefer to listen

Your thoughts are images and sound bites, not reality. Sometimes thoughts feel like they are true when they are not. We are not aware of most of the 50,000-80,000 thoughts we have each day.  That is 2,000-3,000 thoughts per hour.  We practice mindfulness to become aware of our thoughts.

If we are aware of the thought, we can choose whether we want to believe the thought and whether we want to allow that thought to influence our words and our actions. Meditating slows us down enough, so we are aware that we have thoughts.  We find that most of the thoughts we have are reruns, rehashing the past or stirring up anxiety about the future. Until we are aware of our thoughts, we can’t do anything with them.

When we look closely, we find that many of our thoughts are figments of our imagination. They are stories that we made up.  They might be replays of the monologues of our parents, or other influential people in our lives.  Other thoughts come from our inner critic who is so worried that we will fail that it is constantly trying to fix us, even when we are not broken.  Many of our thoughts were helpful at some time in our past, but they continue even though they are no longer helpful.

Right now, your eyes and ears are telling a biased story to your brain, which then tells you another biased story, and each stop along the way in this game of telephone gets you a little further away from reality.

Recognize the lies built into the conventional strategy for happiness to wake up from their spells. Mother Nature whispers: You should feel threatened, frustrated, lonely. Culture and commerce say: You need more clothes, thinner thighs, better beer; consume more and be like the pretty people on TV. The residues of past experiences, especially young ones, mutter in the background: You’re not that smart, attractive, worthy; you need to do more and be more; if you just have X, you’ll get the life you want. The essentializing nature of cognition implies: Crave more, cling more, it will work the next time, really.” Rick Hanson

Think about it. How often do you tell yourself, “If I just get this, then I will be happy?” When you get it are you happy, or do you need something else? You may tell yourself, “Eating this chocolate or ice cream will make me feel better.” Sure, it tastes good while it lasts, but afterward you feel guilty for indulging, and even worse when you look at the scale.


If you are mindful, you can notice the frequent discrepancy between the rewards you expect from habits, and the reward/discomfort you actually got. Our brain creates a reward value based on information from the past. But it doesn’t always update that reward value. Thus, your brain tells you that you will get rewards that no longer exist. And it doesn’t tell you about the new discomforts you will encounter. So, you continue with a habit that doesn’t serve you.

I thought my diet Pepsi habit made me feel relaxed and connected. The reward value came from when I was maybe 10 years old and got to stay up with the big kids and have POP. That reward was true when I was 10. However, 40 years later, that reward doesn’t exist. But I couldn’t give up my diet Pepsi habit no matter how hard I tried.

We need to give our brains new information to establish that the value they had learned in the past is now outdated. By paying attention to the results of behavior in the present moment, you can jolt your brain out of habit autopilot and see and feel exactly how rewarding (or unrewarding) the habit is for you right now. This new information resets the reward value on the old habit and moves better behaviors up in the hierarchy of reward value, and, eventually, into automatic mode.” Judson Brewer

After reading Judson Brewer’s The Craving Mind, I decided to test out his theory. He said that awareness would allow me to get up-to-date and accurate information so that I could trust the new data that are coming in, rather than dismissing them as erroneous.

You can probably see the irony here—old habitual behaviors are based on outdated data, yet because they are old, they are familiar; and because they are familiar, we trust them (change is scary).” Judson Brewer

Each day I allowed myself to drink my diet Pepsi. But I really paid close attention from the urge to have a diet Pepsi until a few hours after I had finished the bottle. At first, I thought this is never going to work.  The first few sips tasted so good. But I continued being mindful about my rewards and discomforts.

This went on day after day, until one day I realized that after drinking half a bottle, I had no desire for the rest. But I continued being mindful of the rewards and discomforts. After a month or so, I noticed that even the first few sips didn’t taste that good. And I realized that I was not relaxed after drinking a diet Pepsi. I was too worried about whether I would have to go to the bathroom during a meeting. And I was not connecting with my coworkers. My brain was finally resetting the reward value of diet Pepsi. I slowly quit drinking it.

No matter what you name it, if you want to change it, you have to rub your brain’s little orbitofrontal cortex nose in its own poop so that it clearly smells how stinky it is. That’s how your brain learns.” Judson Brewer

Resolutions and Goals

Habits are not the only thing our brains lie to us about. They also tell us how difficult it will be for us to do things that are good for us. Our brains overestimate the work, discomfort or pain and underestimate the benefits. Think about how often you renege on your New Years Resolutions.

“Is it something that helps people achieve love? Can it help spread the effects of love? If not, then it’s just the result of the restless mind of humanity, which, when it confronts the deepest riddles and challenges of life, gives up and—lying to itself about the significance of its quest—takes refuge in clever puzzles and cute stunts that do nothing to ease suffering or spread love, but instead give the restless, addictive mind a buzz, which tricks us into thinking we’re on the right track.Maria Shriver’s friend Tom

Avoiding Conflict

Sometimes we tell ourselves lies to minimize or avoid conflict. How many times have you been asked by a friend to do a favor that you really didn’t have the time or energy to do? But you lied to yourself saying it is only a little thing, I can handle it. Or you told yourself you would lose their friendship if you didn’t help.  

The excuses—or outright lies—we tell ourselves are how we rationalize our own behavior or the behavior of others to avoid establishing boundaries. It is also a form of resistance to justify not having a difficult conversation or calling out bullshit.” Terri Cole

Our Persona

We often create a persona of who we think people want us to be. This requires creating a mask and keeping that mask in place. I can attest that over time keeping the mask in place is exhausting.

One of the masks I created and carried through much of my life was to be a do-it-all and know-it-all. My inner critic told me I had to do this so people will like me. Wrong. When you are a know-it-all and do-it-all, you are so busy doing, you don’t have time to create relationships. And you make people feel useless and stupid.

To replace that lie, I used a mantra for about two years. “I am worthy. I am enough. My needs matter.” And I ask myself, “What is more important, getting this done or being present for this person?” I also ask, “What is more important, being right or this relationship?

Staying Safe

We all have lies we tell ourselves to stay safe. My inner critic told me to hold friends at arm’s length. If I let them get to know the real me, they would reject me. My inner critic told me that lie for almost 50 years. The truth is that when you keep people at arm’s length, you don’t develop close friendships and you feel rejected by the people you would like to be friends with.

To replace that lie, I have been risking reaching out to friends. I tell myself there are plenty of people in the world who want to be my friend.  If someone doesn’t that is on them, not on me.


The most dangerous bias we have is our memory of the past. We think our memory of the past is reality. But our brains are not video recorders, they take photos, not videos.  We fill in the spaces between the photographs to make up our stories of the past. We concoct what we think happened. When we are believing the stories of our past, we are believing in a figment of our imagination. 

“It’s a little more like a Wikipedia page. You can go in there and change it, and so can other people.” Elizabeth Loftus

When I am aware that I am rehashing the past, I can ask myself the question that my teacher Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, “Are you sure?”  Of course I automatically answer yes. But then I ask myself again and again until I get the real answer.

Ways We Lie

Those are some of the situations we lie to ourselves in. To help us recognize our lies, let’s look at some of the ways we lie to ourselves:

  1. The Sky Is Falling: We make problems more significant than they are, imagining that the absolute worst thing is about to occur.
  2. Black and White Thinking: There is no in-between, things are either great or lousy.
  3. Negative Narrative: You label yourself in harshly negative ways, focusing on small aspects of self that contribute to your negative narrative.
  4. Negative Mental Filter:  You only recall negative outcomes, events or interactions thathave happened during your life and shut out anything positive that occurred.
  5. Mind Reading: When we make quick assumptions and conclude that someone is thinking something negative about us, without demonstrable evidence. 
  6. Victim’s Mentality: You blame other people for everything that happens never taking responsibility.
  7. Over-Generalization: Because you encountered one challenge or negative outcome, you assume this will always happen in the future.
  8. Emotional Reasoning: When I felt like this is the past, this happened.  I am feeling like that now so this will happen again.
  9. ‘Should’ Statements: We confuse what others expect or want from us with our true needs and wants.

The key is to realize that just because you have a thought doesn’t mean you have to believe it—much less act on it. Practicing mindfulness allows us to become aware of the thought that pops into our head. We can see that many of our thoughts are figments of our imagination. They are stories that we made up So we can ask ourselves, “Is this image or sound bite reality? You will find that some of the thoughts you believed to be true, were in fact lies.