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'Hidden Brain's' Shankar Vedantam says change your story, change your life

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Shankar Vedantum, host of NPR's "Hidden Brain," has launched a new series lasting through November. It's called "Healing 2.0."

The NPR host has launched a new series called "Healing 2.0." Vedantam tells us why he's bringing us this series as we head into what is supposedly the happiest time of the year.

Shankar Vedantam, host of NPR's "Hidden Brain," has launched a new series lasting through November. It's called "Healing 2.0."

The series talks about all the latest thinking about healing the pain in our lives.

WUSF's Craig Kopp talked with Vedantam about why he's bringing us this series now, as we head into the holidays, supposedly the happiest time of the year.

SHANKAR: I think it is a very happy time of the year for many people, Craig. But it's also, I think, a time of year when many people look back with some wistfulness at celebrations and years gone. Family members and loved ones who are no longer with us. And so I think it's also a bittersweet time in the lives of many people. And we decided at "Hidden Brain" to put all of the research that we could find on the psychology of healing together in one package, and offer it to people at this time of the year.

So what's 2.0 about this. You obviously have some new thinking on how we handle this. What is that?

So the opening story in our Healing 2.0 series, which is going to run from November through early December, is titled "Change Your Story, Change Your Life." And it's based on a very interesting idea that if you think of your own life as a novel, imagine that the novel has different chapters in it, where you start and stop, each chapter turns out to have profound significance to your well being. If your chapters start on a very positive note and end on a very negative note, psychologists call this a contamination sequence. But if your chapters start on a low note, and end on a high note, this is what psychologists call a redemption sequence. And all our lives have ups and downs. And we can decide where we put the chapter breaks in our story. And the research seems to suggest that if we put the chapter breaks so that we're telling more redemptive stories, rather than contamination stories, we're going to be better off, we're going to feel better, our well being and mental health is going to be better.

"... while we might not be able to control the bad things, we have enormous agency over how we think about the bad things that happen to us, and that can have transformative effects on our lives. "
Shankar Vedantam

I don't know if Kelly Clarkson is going to get mad about this. But I thought what doesn't kill you makes you stronger?

Yeah. So that's another idea we wanted to explore. And this is such a common trope that we have. I think we often, you know, approach setbacks with the view of that both we and other people should go through setbacks and come out the other end, being stronger and wiser and better and happier in some ways. And I think we offer this up to people really as a way to encourage them, you know. So someone's going through cancer, and we try to communicate to them things are going to be better on the other side, you're going to be a stronger, better person on the other side. But I don't think we quite realized that this unintentionally, I think, has negative consequences on people because now the person suffering from cancer is not just dealing with the cancer, they're dealing with the expectation that they're supposed to come out the other side somehow being better and improved and have superhuman qualities of some kind. So this is an episode which I would say is more of a myth-busting episode, where we're grappling with this question of whether, in fact, what doesn't kill us makes us stronger. And we come to the conclusion that in fact, the answer is not true. That in fact, it's an unhelpful way to think about the setbacks and tragedies in your life. It's far better to sort of say it's possible that there could be growth that comes from trauma. But that can't be the expectation going in. And if it's the expectation, it often can backfire on us.

Shankar, I want to make a change right now. I want to feel it right now. Besides listening to "Hidden Brain" Healing 2.0, what's the first thing I need to do?

The ways in which we think about our setbacks can profoundly change how we experience those setbacks. So if there's one thing that I would offer that you asked about, I would say the way we respond to it, we think we don't believe that we have much control and agency over the bad things that happen to us. And while we might not be able to control the bad things, we have enormous agency over how we think about the bad things that happen to us, and that can have transformative effects on our lives.

Shankar Vedantam, fascinating stuff. We'll be listening to Healing 2.0 and I appreciate your time today.

Thank you so much, Craig. Thank you for having me on.

You can hear Healing 2.0 on "Hidden Brain," Saturdays at 3 p.m. on WUSF 89.7.

I started my journalism career delivering the Toledo Blade newspaper on my bike.