The Rashomon Effect and the movie in your head

Have you seen the famous Japanese movie, Rashomon? Released in 1950, it was directed by Akira Kurosawa and won several international awards, introducing the rest of the world to Japanese film. It also became famous for capturing the difficulties involving human memory and experience.

“The term Rashomon effect refers to real-world situations in which multiple eye-witness testimonies of an event contain conflicting information.”

The multiple-eyewitnesses can be in your head, and what happens in the movie describes what’s happening to you every day. Knowing that can change your life.

Rashomon - 羅生門

The film centers on an incident in a grove. The body of a samurai is found, stabbed to death. A bandit is suspected and captured, but his testimony in court, along with that of the samurai’s wife and the woodcutter who found the body, all present starkly different realities.

The banditThe different perspectives are played out in the movie, and the only thing clear is that the stories are self-serving. The bandit’s account portrays him as bolder and braver than in the other accounts. The woodcutter leaves out an important detail that could get him into trouble. The wife is either a helpless victim or a sinister, scheming woman.

The viewer - and perhaps even those telling their stories - are left uncertain about the truth.

I thought of this effect when I was responding to the simple question: “How was your vacation?”

One week. Two stories.

The Rashomon effect has been used to “describe the subjectivity of perception on recollection, by which observers of an event are able to produce substantially different but equally plausible accounts of it.”

How was my vacation? It includes an 11-hour delay because our flight was overbooked, having my son throw up twice on the bumpy, windy road to the hotel, and arriving at 1am in a small room with bad lighting and walls so thin another guest asked us to be quiet. It’s a story of limited vegetarian options and ants in the bathroom and a Muzak version of the “Theme from Arthur” piped in during lunch. It’s having both kids throw up on the way back to the airport and missing our flight.

How was my vacation? It was “Paradise.” That’s the word my wife and I used each day to describe the beautiful surroundings and the weather. Wherever we went, the people were so kind and friendly it verged on spiritual. “We don’t have much, but we’re grateful for what we have.” It was the guide taking care of my son on his first horseback ride, and holding his hand on the trail even when no one was looking. It was seeing sloths and iguanas and crocodiles and countless varieties of birds. It was mangoes and avocados so delicious you were happy to see them at each meal. It was being woken up by howler monkeys and watching the sun light up the volcano that dominated the landscape.

All of it is true, though the memories are already being replaced by the stories I tell. Some details are reinforced with each telling while others fade, lost forever. Which version will I tell to whom? And why?

What’s your story?

The truth is that our reality is actually a fiction. Our attention is so limited we only have a sparse sample of what’s actually going on, and we use stories to connect the dots and make sense of things. What we experience as reality is just a movie inside our head, a movie we can direct if we know how.

When you’re aware of this, you can shape your experience not only in hindsight, looking backward, but in the moment. You can choose what to pay attention to, how you will react, and ultimately what will be a major or minor part of your story.

Think about what you pay attention to and what you ignore about yourself, about others, and about what’s happening around you.

How is your day going? How’s your life?