We asked MIND readers to send us their personal what-if stories in conjunction with our November/December 2015 cover story exploring the human propensity for counterfactual thinking—imagining alternative scenarios to what actually happened in their lives. We got a spectacular variety of responses, with a good mix of “upward” counterfactuals (imagining something better than what happened) and “downward” ones (imagining how things might have been far worse). Here’s a sampling of their imaginative offerings.—The Editors
[We edited submissions for length and style.]
What if the zygote in my mother’s womb never split? Just think! I would have been raised as one baby who did not have the peace and joy a twin provides. For approximately 14 days we were a single blastocyst that randomly split. Everyone could have become a twin, but only one in 300 do.—Arnisha Wurlitzer
What would have happened if I had ignored the subtle sensations in my collarbone and arm one afternoon at work? The ER doctors had decided that I did not fit the typical coronary disease patient: I am young, female, very fit and a vegetarian on statins. The answer is: I would have dropped dead or needed a heart transplant within 23 days because of a 98 percent blockage in my "widow maker" left anterior descending coronary artery.—Fay Bee
What would have happened if I had remained a working pharmacist and not switched careers and gone into education and become a teacher? I did forgo more money, had a different lifestyle and lost income for a few years. I am happier, however, and with this route. I also met my soon-to-be wife.—Kelly Banco, Edmonton, Alberta
I attempted suicide in the 10th grade. At the age of almost 40, I wonder, what if I had taken that handful of pills? Life has continued to be very hard but I think about the wonderful moments—big and small—I might have missed.—Tammie G.
I was born with a gifted mathematical mind. When I was four years old, I would create number puzzles, such as counting the numerical values of letters in names and adding them up for fun (Jen = 10 + 5 + 14 = 29). I would choose a math book before anything else in the toy store and finish it within a few days and then need another one. As puberty approached, however, a fear of losing my mother to sudden and severe mental illness dominated my every waking hour. The shapes and numbers were hijacked by thoughts of “Is this my last good-bye with her?” My inductive logical and numerical creativity atrophied, and although I am a happy and successful engineer, I wonder where I would be today if there had been no trauma. What would I have been able to contribute to this world with the wonderful gift of curiosity and ability?—Jennifer Fuller, Hampton, N.H.
What if we had listened to the doctors? We sat there stunned…our son did not even have enough energy to sit up on the exam table and could no longer answer basic questions. Seizures had been robbing him of his abilities, and now our doctors were telling us to prepare for the worst. What if we had done as we had been told? Our son might not be with us.—Susan Yeager, Burlingame, Calif.
Back in 1979 I was living in Austin, Texas. My girlfriend had left me, and I was very depressed. One day I just happened to wander into a bookstore in a local mall. I came across a book about people who had moved to Santa Fe, N.M., to start a new life and work as potters or artists or bus drivers. After reading that book I woke up one morning and drove from Austin to Santa Fe. I had no job there and I did not know a soul either. To make a very long story short, I met my future wife there while working as an orderly in a nursing home. She was a social worker on staff. Fifteen months later I moved to Chicago to be with her as that was her hometown. I married her about one year later, had two kids and have lived in Illinois now for more than 35 years. If this isn't a what-if story, I don't know what is! What if I had never come across that book about Santa Fe in the bookstore on that day long ago in Austin?—William Hollars, Illinois
I wonder where I would be today if I had not been drafted into the military right after college. I was an above-average guitarist who played every weekend in several bands in and around Amherst, Mass. One band featured Natalie Cole. We wrote songs together. I was sure we would play together after college but my draft lottery number was 15. So after graduation (June 1972) Natalie went back to California, and I went to Fort Dix, N.J. We never played together again.—Dennis MacPherson
Midway through third grade I was invited to attend an experimental state-sponsored school for advanced children. My mother had just gone back to work after staying home for a few years to raise my younger brother and me and couldn't be bothered with taking me to the special school. (It was about 10 miles from our home.) So I attended regular school. I have been fairly successful and am happy about how my life has unfolded. Yet I always wonder how things would have been different if I had had the opportunity to be exposed to exceptional guidance when my mind was so eager.—Leslie Morelli
In the 1980s, when I was around 10 years old, it was not unusual for my mother to send me into the local grocery store to grab a few things while she waited in the car outside. One day she handed me some cash and sent me in to pick up a can of ground coffee. Unlike anytime before, she handed me a filled-out and well-worn lottery form to purchase a few dollars’ worth of tickets for the big drawing that evening. The store was sold-out of the smaller cans of coffee, so I bought the larger one and realized that I didn't have enough cash left to purchase the lottery tickets. The next day my mother reviewed the winning numbers and discovered that the ticket I had managed not to buy would have been the multimillion-dollar jackpot winner. We were not a wealthy family—and in fact my mother was hard-pressed to raise seven children on a waitress’s paycheck—and that night would have been a life-changing event if ever there was one.—Adam Wood, Nazareth, Pa.