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Narrative and the brain

August 24, 2010

“Our ancestors have been human for a very long time. If a normal baby girl born forty thousand years ago were kidnapped by a time traveler and raised in a normal family in New York, she would be ready for college in eighteen years. She would learn English (along with—who knows?—Spanish or Chinese), understand trigonometry, follow baseball and pop music; she would probably want a pierced tongue and a couple of tattoos. And she would be unrecognizably different from the brothers and sisters she left behind.” –Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism (2006)

What is this all about? Why the stark differentiation between genetically identical, yet unrecognizably distinct individuals like the girl in our time traveling kidnapper scenario and her siblings? Explicitly, the differences are not biological. They are ultimately differences in the collective, accumulated, storied contexts for the humans we are considering.

What is story, and why is it so powerful and persuasive in our development into mature individuality? The human capacity for narrative—like all of our intelligence capacities—is grounded in our biological make up. For us human beings, though, narrative and story are not only capacities, but they are veritable drives. We are a species saturated by fictions and story, and always will be so unless we undergo major, major revamping of the biological infrastructure underpinning our intelligent processes. (Which, incidentally, is not where I am going with this post.)

The story of our thirst for fiction and narrative is rooted in the story of the human brain. Briefly, I would like to look at narrative from the ground up. I should note that I lean heavily in this explanation on the work of Brian Boyd who has authored fabulous writing on the origin of stories. First, consider the evolutionary advantage of information sharing. Simply put, by sharing information, we can access more information than we can glean from our own efforts. This pooling of information shows up everywhere from honeybees doing a waggle dance to indicate to their fellow honeybees the distance and direction for nectar, to the alarm cries of monkeys or birds to alert their fellows toward the danger of lurking predators. It is readily apparent that the pooling of information by a group presents a major source of survival advantage, and indeed this cooperative communication to share more information than we can glean by our own individual efforts has been a major incentive in the development and evolution of social life.

So why narrative? Why story? Narrative is chock full of social information to guide our immediate decisions and general principles that we can apply in future circumstances. This is a very important point: that narrative–unlike mere communication–is essentially a compression of social information, which in other words means that narrative overwhelmingly focuses our attention on “strategic information.” As Boyd articulates:

The salient features of narrative are the strategic data, for example, of whether Jack is sleeping with Jill, rather than a metric of how deeply Jack is sleeping. Outside of notable exceptions such as autism, human beings are prone to swiftly both observe and interpret their world in terms of the patterns of agency, humanity, individuality, personality, action, and interaction of other human beings around them. In our ancestoral environment, strategic social information would almost always have been about people we had already met and would often meet again. We therefore have an endless fascination with *character* information, since it helps us to predict the behavior of those we interact with, and because this character information remains relatively stable over time. Today, many of us human beings are caught up in the fascination of people and lives of media celebrities who we will likely never meet, or with whom we will likely never have consequential interaction. Why do we do this? Just as our continued craving for sweet and fat reflects old circumstances of our environment of evolutionary adaptation from which we have not yet biologically advanced, likewise our often indiscriminate appetite for social information reflects an era in our evolutionary adaptation when we were likely to encounter repeatedly everyone we heard about. Thus we especially ingest information about the powerful, because their decisions and actions could influence our lives, as well as ingesting information about those who command attention, since they were likely to be the social leaders.

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  1. Carl Youngblood permalink

    It’s interesting how we each only learn a small sliver of information about the history of humanity and yet we inherit a lot of baggage in terms of shared social customs and attitudes. Even though we may be profoundly uninformed, we still unconsciously acquire a whole bunch of things that are the result of accumulated experiences as a species. We may not specifically remember the events that triggered the acquisition of this “baggage,” but their effects could probably still be observed, if only we knew what to look for.

  2. I liked this post a lot. I’ve been meaning to read the work of Boyd, who so far, unfortunately, I’ve only skimmed. It makes great sense to me to think of narrative as a) a kind of urgent human imperative and b) best understood as a type of compressed social information about the people in our lives (in the past, people we’d meet repeatedly).

    A few years ago I started teaching my students that, while I tend to emphasize the amazing behavioral, cognitive, emotional, etc., continuities across apes (or put another way between apes and humans), I also think narrative points us to a striking difference– something that approaches human uniqueness (and trust me, I’m not one to invoke human uniqueness much at all). Is there something like narrative, though, in apes or any other animals that we’re just not seeing for what it is? That can be a useful question to ask.

    With narrative we humans have the chance to influence (some might say ‘manipulate’) as well as to teach and inform, to deal with anxieties and fears, to celebrate and to delight.

    And so…. Maybe it’s no coincidence that in my day job I teach about the evolution of brains, communication, language, and culture, and in my night job (so to speak) I incessantly and obsessively write, read, and review books. The storied context is equally present in both arenas!

  3. alexandra sidor permalink

    Hy. I want to write my dissertation paper on the facilitatory effect of stories in understanding abstract concepts. Are there more bibliografical resources on the narative brain or the importance of stories for cognitive development?
    Thank you

  4. wrightli permalink

    Reblogged this on Engage and commented:
    The Power of Story

  5. Great post, thanks for it Michael. You may also find my PhD research blog of interest: (it cites Brian Boyd, Joseph Carroll, Jon Gottschall etc):

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