If I Only Had a Brain
I would not be just a nothin
My head all full of stuffin
My heart all full of pain.
Perhaps I’d deserve you
And be even worthy erve you
If I only had a brain.
When Kelly was about eight, Sam and her dad visited the planetarium and brought home a jar of “Mars Mud” from the gift shop. Kelly absconded with the green goop and fashioned a pair of green earrings onto her ears. It was a standard childhood mess, but I remember this one because Kelly insisted that the matted-down goop in her hair was Sam’s fault. If Sam had not purchased the Mars Mud, Kelly reasoned, she would not have been tempted to play with it!
Recently I read an article entitled “Why We Imagine” and learned that this kind of thought process has a name: counterfactual thinking. When we alter in our imaginations an element of something that has happened, we are engaged in counterfactual thinking. Kelly changed her outcome by altering Sam’s visit to the planetarium. The Scarecrow changed his entire life trajectory by adding a brain. We all engage in counterfactual thinking often, and often it serves to enhance our emotional health. Counterfactual thinking can help us learn how to act differently in the future (If I had studied harder for that test, I would have performed better on it. Next time I’ll study harder.), and it can help us appreciate what we have (It took me two hours to get home from work, but it would have been worse if I’d been the person who was injured in the car crash that tied up traffic.).
This all makes sense and seems rather intuitive. What struck me in the article is the part that explains the parameters people predictably alter. People “are more likely to mutate actions rather than inactions, causes rather than background conditions, and controllable events over uncontrollable ones.” Consider the following true story: When I was in college, I spent a semester studying and working in Washington, D.C. The apartment building in which I and the other students were housed sat adjacent to Rock Creek Park in a not-so-nice part of the city. One evening after work I went to the Kennedy Center to purchase a ticket to see Hal Holbrook performing a one-man show on Mark Twain, and then I took a bus back to my apartment. I disembarked at a bus stop about three hundred yards from my apartment at approximately 7:00 in the evening, i.e., after rush hour crowds had subsided. A light rain had begun. Most of the other commuters who got off the bus with me walked down the sidewalk, mostly heading north, but I chose to cross the street and then walk north. As I walked north, alone, on a dark, drizzly night, I kept my head down to keep my face dry. I was preoccupied thinking about the weather and about Hal Holbrook, a man I’d had a crush on ever since I saw All the President’s Men where he starred as Deep Throat. Before I realized what was happening, three young men were right in front of me, and one was reaching for my purse. I held onto my purse, and another of the young men punched me in the face. The first one grabbed my purse and they fled south.
At that time I had never even known a victim of a crime (though that’s probably as naïve as not knowing anyone who’s gay), and I certainly didn’t believe anyone would ever intentionally hurt me. The crime changed my life, I suppose. I stopped going out alone, I stopped speaking to the homeless people who regularly engaged me at bus stops, and most importantly I felt vulnerable all the time. Every stranger looked threatening. I felt as if I had no control over my world.
Now, as an experiment in counterfactual thinking, there are a lot of ways this scenario could be changed. On the “grateful” side, the three boys could have dragged me into Rock Creek Park and hurt me well beyond a swollen jaw. On the “learning from the incident” side, I could have held my head up and stayed aware of my surroundings, or I could have walked on the same side of the street as the other people, or I could have handed my purse over immediately. All of these changes involve actions rather than inactions, causes rather than background conditions, and controllable rather than uncontrollable events. And, in fact, I now walk with crowds, scan the streets, avoid walking alone in the dark, and instruct my children to hand over their valuables immediately if they are approached by robbers.
On the “changes that do not serve a functional purpose” side, I could have skipped All the President’s Men in 1976, thus having no interest in Hal Holbrook’s performance. Or I could have taken a semester to study in France rather than Washington. Or I could have lived in the 1860s when there were no buses, women would not purchase theater tickets for themselves, and purse-snatching was not a prevalent crime. Or . . . those three boys could have not been criminals. None of these imagined changes, mostly background or uncontrollable events, seem plausible, and they certainly don’t provide any functional benefit.
Sam’s counterfactual thinking almost never fits into one of the “normal” categories. To modify her outcome she generally changes a background condition, and if she selects an event, it is usually one over which she has no control, such as the century or country in which she lives. If she lived in the 1860s, before swimming pools existed, she would not have to face the students who passed the lifeguarding test because there would not be lifeguards. Her counterfactual thinking rarely seems either to help her learn from past events or to experience relief/gratitude about an outcome. Why?
First of all, adolescents are a special category of people. They possess much “real” information (in contrast to children whose worlds include imaginary characters and omnipotent adults), but amazingly little ability to create valid causal connections. I learned this in an article about the neurology of counterfactual thinking and it’s implications for the juvenile justice system. Stories about neurotypical adolescents’ justifications for their risky behavior certainly seem to bear this out. According to all developmental research on the subject, an adolescent’s pre-frontal cortex is not well developed. They do not have much white matter up front yet. (I’m assuming the pre-frontal cortex is in the front, but I may be wrong.) Sam is an adolescent. So maybe that it explains it.
Then there are the autism implications. It turns out that a body of research looking specifically at the relationship between counterfactual thinking and autism does exist: counterfactual thinking and theory of mind; counterfactual thinking and second order emotions; counterfactual thinking and executive functioning; counterfactual thinking and additive v. subtractive scenarios; counterfactual thinking and flexibility.
The papers are all provocative in their own ways, but for now I’m not interested in autism per se. Rather, I’m fascinated by the interaction between the details people predictably alter, i.e., the norms, the benefits of counterfactual thinking when these normal elements are changed, and the counterproductive uses of this kind of thinking in people who suffer from depression and anxiety. To foreshadow my conclusion here, I think one of the major issues is agency. Our counterfactual scenarios reflect our beliefs about how much control we have over our world. I think Sam’s anxiety can usually be attributed to her lacking a belief in her own agency. The world comes at her, usually with no rhyme or reason. Even when she perceives a role for herself, she feels powerless to adjust her behavior.
Research shows that people suffering from severe anxiety and severe depression ruminate over past experiences more than people identified (by a rubric I’ve not seen) as emotionally healthy. Ideally, people learn what they can from past experiences and move on. In fact, replaying a counterfactual scenario repeatedly usually results in the counterfactual seeming less plausible with each replay. Suppose I think back to the time in college when I did not go on a group camping trip because I had a paper due, and Joe, the guy I’d just started dating, came back from camping with a new girlfriend. I could be happily married to Joe now, thirty years later. Or could I? Replaying the college camping trip so that I participate and ultimately marry Joe becomes less and less plausible as other relevant details reassert themselves. It would have been out of character for me to put fun before an assignment (for better and worse). More importantly, Joe and his fellow camper eventually broke up. Nothing prevented us from reconnecting . . . except a mutual lack of interest. In reality it is unlikely that the camping trip would have changed the trajectory of my life.
For people with anxiety, constant replays appear to make the counterfactual less plausible, but not because the causality or the details emerge more vividly. Instead, the element that is most often changed is characterological. “If I’d been more outgoing . . .” “If I hadn’t said something stupid the way I always do. . .” Here the counterfactual outcome might seem plausible, but it depends on an implausible change of character. The logical conclusion is that the outcome in similar future events will likely be as disastrous as in previous episodes. Without a belief that I have the ability to alter my behavior or put myself in situations more conducive to my success, I am helpless.
With depression, the rumination seems even more destructive. In one study, “Participants endorsing severe levels of depressive symptoms generated counterfactuals that were less controllable, less reasonable, and more characterological in nature.” The first and third characteristics are shared with people experiencing anxiety. The second, “less reasonable,” seems to refer to things that either cannot be changed or have scant causal bearing on the outcome. “If only everybody shared my perspective, I would not feel alienatated . . .” “If only I’d been born a Japanese boy instead of an American girl (one of Sam’s heartfelt counterfactuals for a better life when she was in middle school). . .” In these scenarios, I have no possibility of efficacy. I cannot control other people’s opinions, and I cannot control my birth gender or ethnic origins.
I think the key here is identifying what I can control and identifying a causal connection between that and an outcome. The Scarecrow thinks about how life would be different if he only had a brain. He spends all of his time ruminating on it. “It” is a permanent state of affairs over which he has not control, at least not until Dorothy shows up. And it turns out that “it” is not even the cause of his despair, because, as we know, he’s the smartest of the crew.*
So where does all this take me? To the concept of agency. For upward (how things could have been better) counterfactual thinking to be functionally beneficial, one needs a coherent story of cause and effect. In Sam’s world, creating these self-narratives seems to be a struggle. I suspect that her sensory processing and gross motor challenges, going back to infancy, impaired her ability to understand causality in the physical world and continue to impair her ability to identify salient information in her environment. Next, the cause must include a personal action/decision. If this criterion is absent, it’s time to make peace with the event in a Buddhist sense of acceptance or to stay mired in it unhelpfully. In high school I spent much of my time thinking about how I’d be more popular if I’d grown taller (I’m 5’1”). It was a very depressing rumination. Finally, as an actor I need to have executive functioning skills and/or characterological flexibility to effect a change in my future behavior. That’s a tall order.
Framing a story is an act of will. When we build a narrative (and I believe we each have a multitude of correct narratives), we are implicitly building a story of cause and effect for our lives. I choose to blame my lack of vigilance for my mugging, because I can change that. If I chose to focus on the prevalence of crime, I would also have a valid narrative, but it would deny me any agency. In other words, it would be true, but not as useful as some other versions of the truth. My question, then, is how do I teach my children to choose wisely?