Neuroscientist Michael Gazzanica tells a story about visiting a patient at Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital in New York City that conveys more about the stunning discoveries of neuroscience than a scientific paper ever could.
He was called in for a consultation about a patient that had a lesion in an area of the brain believed to be responsible for location in space. Other than the lesion, this woman was in perfect health, both physically and mentally. She had passed a battery of cognitive tests with flying colors.
When he entered her hospital room, she was sitting up in bed reading the New York Times. After about fifteen minutes of the standard diagnostic questions, Gazzanica asked her where she was. Looking him straight in the eye, she responded, “Doctor, I know you’re not going to believe me because the other doctors don’t, but I’m in my house in Freeport, Maine.”
A little taken aback, Gazzanica followed up her answer with, “Well, if you’re in your house in Maine, how do you explain that bank of elevators outside your door?”
Without a moment’s hesitation, she answered, “Doctor, you have no idea how much time and money it cost me to have those installed.” And she was absolutely serious. She was making it up as she was going along, but completely believed what she was saying.
It’s often people with some dysfunction that teach us the most in neuroscience. Gazzanica believes that other than the lesion, this woman is no different than the rest of us. What we commonly call reason, he believes, is a story we spin to resolve any cognitive dissonance, in this case between her belief she was at home and the physical reality of a bank of elevators.
While this story certainly can make us question our view of reality, it also points to a practical application for leaders. If the mind works by telling stories, stories might be a way to change the mind. And if we change the mind, as the case of this woman illustrates, we change the world.
The key is to tell a story that is a better fit with the facts and is more attractive. Great leaders like Winston Churchill, John Kennedy and Martin Luther King had transformational narratives that changed minds, and that’s how they changed the world.