"Where is the dog food left over from what you fed them last night?" My wife, Laurel, asked a simple question. It led to a fascinating insight into how our brains work.
OK, how my brain worked after I heard the question.
But my brain is pretty damn normal most of the time. And I've read enough neuroscience books to know that how I responded is a good example of how false beliefs that can seem absolutely true take root in the human brain.
Laurel added, "I can't find it in the refrigerator." I told her, "It must be there. I remember the can had lots left in it. It must be in the refrigerator."
We were at a cabin in central Oregon that we visit regularly. It was morning. We'd arrived the night before. I almost always feed our two dogs in the evening. Laurel feeds them in the morning.
Three times, at least, I looked through every part of the refrigerator. No dog food. I couldn't understand why the dog food can wasn't there.
I distinctly remembered standing at the cabin kitchen counter, spooning food from the can into their bowls on top of dry kibble, then putting the top back on the can and returning it to the refrigerator. I kept telling Laurel, "It has to be here. The can was mostly full. I wouldn't have thrown it away."
My wife started looking in all the places where a forgetful senior citizen would have put dog food other than the refrigerator. So did I, the senior citizen.
Cupboards. The trash. Freezer. Kitchen counter. We looked and looked. No dog food.
"This is really bizarre," I finally told Laurel. "There has to be another explanation. Something obvious that we're missing."
Saying those words kicked my mind out of a wrong-belief rut. "Hey!," I yelled. "I didn't feed the dogs after we got to the cabin last night. I fed them before we left home."
Bingo. Mystery solved.
The dog food can was put into our home's refrigerator and not brought to the cabin. But usually I do feed the dogs after we arrive at the cabin. This was a rare exception, something that hadn't happened for many years of cabin visits.
Interestingly, when Laurel asked me what happened to the dog food can after I'd fed them at the cabin, forgetting that I'd fed them at home, I then also forgot that I'd fed them at home.
It was like a false belief had been implanted in my brain. What Laurel said made sense, because I do habitually feed the dogs after we drive several hours from our home to the cabin. So I conjured up a memory of standing in the cabin kitchen, putting canned food into their bowls, then returning it to the cabin refrigerator.
Only thing was, that memory was from previous visits to the cabin, not from what happened the night before. However, it seemed absolutely real to me.
If I'd been asked to swear under oath whether I'd fed the dogs canned food after we arrived at the cabin, and then put the can in the refrigerator, I would have said "yes." This is the power of a false belief. It can seem absolutely true, once mistaken assumptions are accepted as fact.
It only was when I said out loud, "There has to be something obvious we're missing," that the spell was broken. It felt great to suddenly know that the mystery of the missing dog food was a fiction: no dog food can was missing, because it hadn't been brought to the cabin.
Lesson is, challenge your beliefs. Don't blindly accept that what you think is true, really is. When something seems so strange as to be unbelievable, consider that you're missing an unstrange truth.