Secrets are bad for you.
So says David Eagleman, author of the new book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. I happened to catch Eagleman on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross and was so intrigued that upon arriving home, I sat in my driveway to finish listening to Eagleman discuss time, Ulysses contracts, and–my favorite–secrets. And then, unsatisfied, I got the book.
Eagleman uses Doris Kearn Goodwin’s team of rivals concept to describe the different thought processes battling in the brain when confronted with a secret. And that is what makes a secret a secret:
One part of the brain wants to reveal something, and another part does not want to. When there are competing votes in the brain–one for telling, and one for withholding–that defines a secret. If no party cares to tell, that’s merely a boring fact; if both parties want to tell, that’s just a good story. Without the framework of rivalry, we would have no way to understand a secret.
Secrets create tension in your brain, but your brain doesn’t like the tension that secrets create. This is why keeping secrets is bad for your health: your stress hormones go up and your immune system function goes down.
But Eagleman prescribes a way around the negative effects of secret-keeping. Telling your secrets, or even writing them down, improves your health and lowers your stress hormone levels. Confessionals, Postsecret, and diaries are all effective secret-keeping coping strategies.
So what does this mean for you and me?
Don’t Keep Your Secrets Secret
Eagleman doesn’t discriminate, but I think there are good secrets and bad secrets. A good secret is something we want to treasure in our own heart for a time, safe from the eyes of others. (Actually, our brains wouldn’t consider this type of “secret” a secret, because we don’t yet want to share it. But it is secret in the sense that we don’t want to share it with others.)
But a bad secret is a burden. Don’t keep bad secrets! Tell a therapist or a friend, or take simple–but effective–action and write that secret down!
Don’t Spill Your Secrets Indiscriminately
A secret is a big deal, and places a real burden on the secret-keeper. Before you tell things you want kept confidential, ask yourself, “Is it fair to ask this person to keep my secret?” (Many times, the answer will be a resounding “Yes!” But ask yourself before sharing, because sometimes, the answer will be “no.”) Proceed accordingly.
Don’t Share Other People’s Secrets
Our brains think secrets are a big deal, so respect the secrets of others. If someone has confided in you, don’t even think about gossiping about it. You may write it down, or discuss it with a therapist, or perhaps a stranger (Readers, I’m debating this one–what do you think?), but discussing the secret with mutual acquaintances is out of the question.
(There are exceptions. Therapists are required to break confidentiality when they believe their patient to be in danger of harming themselves or others. But this is the exception, not the rule.)
Utilize a Secret-Keeping Coping Strategy
If you’ve been entrusted with a Big Deal secret, at the very least, write it down. And then you can rip it into a million tiny pieces and throw it away.
Want to Find Out More?
Incognito was an interesting read, but not quite as interesting as listening to Eagleman’s interview with Terry Gross. If you’re interested in hearing more, I highly recommend listening to his interview here. Or, for the full experience, get the book.