Behind the Scenes: Our Subconscious’ Role in Listening to Stories | Modern Mythology
Such beginnings as "Once upon a time, or In a land far far away," and even "In the beginning," are all cultural signals to the brain that we are about to be told a story, and that we should switch off our normal, everyday censorship. However, there is one beginning that is almost sure to make us suspend our disbelief: the statement This is a true story. It appeals to us perhaps more than any other because we not only want it to be true, we want to hear it because it is true.
As much as storytellers lead us away into fantasy, our brains are looking for what is real, what can be relied on. Of course, in story tradition, a story element is often a metaphor for truth, so it is hardly surprising that even when faced with make believe, we still look for truth. It is almost as if we know that the story has something to give us – some gift, or even healing. Many therapists deliberately use stories to heal, to awaken insight.
The Healing Power of Stories
In her workshops on how stories heal, Human Givens therapist and storyteller, Pat Williams, relates a time when a colleague (Ivan Tyrell) spontaneously created a story for a client who had suffered debilitating verrucas for many years, with no success from any other therapy. After putting her into a hypnotic trance Ivan conjured up for her a story of a queen whose land had been invaded, by enemies who had holed themselves up in castles (verrucas) all over her land (her feet). By having an advisor enter the story and teach the queen how to mobilize her people (her immune system) to surround and cut off the food supplies to the castles she was able to rid her lands of the foe. Although the woman did not remember the story upon awaking, within weeks her verrucas were gone.
Tim Chante, a story writer who creates custom written fairy tales for clients seeking a personal gift for loved ones, has also seen the unexpected yet profound healing affect a story can have. Finding that the listener, the person the story has been created for, often finds meaning in the tale that Tim himself had no idea of.
However, perhaps this hidden power we have to make meaning is not so surprising. Research into the experience of listening to a story shows that a number of factors are present when we enter a story listening experience—even into a normal, apparently awake one. It appears that a form of self-hypnosis is taking place: as when listening to a story, participants exhibit an almost trance like quality, as breathing and swallowing reflexes are slowed, they become more still, pupils dilate and faces soften. It suggests the story, whether by our conscious permission or not, is indeed working with our subconscious.
Moreover, whilst the subconscious is empowered by its need to search for what is real—it will, if necessary, create it. In experiments people are seen to be unwittingly guided by their subconscious. While participants believed they were making conscious choices about strategy and approach—in this case, to chase a radio controlled toy helicopter around a gymnasium—their subconscious had them performing the task in exactly the same way. They thought they varied from each other by using different chase techniques of speed, or direction, or foot movement, but in fact they all did it by simply keeping the helicopter visually in the same position, relative to its background, by moving themselves accordingly. In other words, their subconscious was making the helicopter appear to move in a visually straight line, thus allowing them to predict where it would be in time to catch it.
Art Reflects Life
In life, we too appear to be at the will of our subconscious’ need to make sense. Tim Chante, mentioned above, tells of a young boy ‘David’ whom he supported when doing some advocacy work in UK junior schools. The boy had presented as having a distinct dislike of himself—that he was a ‘bad person’. When Tim explored the belief though story, he found it related to an incident two years previously when another boy in his class, who shared the same first name, had died tragically in a road accident. At that time, David had been told by a class mate that “the wrong David had died”. From that incident, David had lost the ability to be his own ‘good guy’. Evidence indeed of the degree to which we write our story.
Although this is not to say the subconscious is against us; certainly it is far likely that its plans for us are survival orientated and therefore making sense as best it can. It does suggest that we are more asleep in its grasp than is always useful, and that perhaps a trick can be learned from the storytelling listening experience. Storytelling listeners have reported that a number of factors can cause them to wake up from the story trance: Disturbances in their surroundings; jolts in the story; the teller being over dramatic or false; and the listener’s own predisposition, knowledge, or bias. If these factors are looked at in terms of events that may happen in the course of a person’s lifetime, it can be seen that any number of the incidents we experience day to day, or our ability to spot a jolt in logic or reason, or a fake presentation of life’s truths, or our own personal wisdom, can each give us an opportunity to leap out of dreaming our way through life.
Author Timothy Freke has coined a phrase for this waking up process. He calls it Lucid Living: the act of coming awake in the life dream. In his case, the coming awake is far from painful—it is simply becoming aware of the dream in order to keep one foot out of it.
There is no question that without this, most of the events that do ‘wake us up’ are often painful, and we would be forgiven for preferring to remain as Ulysses sailors, when they fell foul of the Lotus-eaters and begged him to leave them to gorge endlessly on the seductive fruit. But one way or another, we do need to find a way to wake up to truly embrace life. Not so much leave the story we are living, that is impossible, but to at least be the hero actively.
The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction
AMID the squawks and pings of our digital devices, the old-fashioned virtues of reading novels can seem faded, even futile. But new support for the value of fiction is arriving from an unexpected quarter: neuroscience.
Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.
Researchers have long known that the “classical” language regions, like Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, are involved in how the brain interprets written words. What scientists have come to realize in the last few years is that narratives activate many other parts of our brains as well, suggesting why the experience of reading can feel so alive. Words like “lavender,” “cinnamon” and “soap,” for example, elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells.
In a 2006 study published in the journal NeuroImage, researchers in Spain asked participants to read words with strong odor associations, along with neutral words, while their brains were being scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. When subjects looked at the Spanish words for “perfume” and “coffee,” their primary olfactory cortex lit up; when they saw the words that mean “chair” and “key,” this region remained dark. The way the brain handles metaphors has also received extensive study; some scientists have contended that figures of speech like “a rough day” are so familiar that they are treated simply as words and no more. Last month, however, a team of researchers from Emory University reported in Brain & Language that when subjects in their laboratory read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex, responsible for perceiving texture through touch, became active. Metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex, while phrases matched for meaning, like “The singer had a pleasing voice” and “He had strong hands,” did not.
Researchers have discovered that words describing motion also stimulate regions of the brain distinct from language-processing areas. In a study led by the cognitive scientist Véronique Boulenger, of the Laboratory of Language Dynamics in France, the brains of participants were scanned as they read sentences like “John grasped the object” and “Pablo kicked the ball.” The scans revealed activity in the motor cortex, which coordinates the body’s movements. What’s more, this activity was concentrated in one part of the motor cortex when the movement described was arm-related and in another part when the movement concerned the leg.
The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated. Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), has proposed that reading produces a vivid simulation of reality, one that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.” Fiction — with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions — offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.
The novel, of course, is an unequaled medium for the exploration of human social and emotional life. And there is evidence that just as the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, so it treats the interactions among fictional characters as something like real-life social encounters.
Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, performed an analysis of 86 fMRI studies, published last year in the Annual Review of Psychology, and concluded that there was substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals — in particular, interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others. Scientists call this capacity of the brain to construct a map of other people’s intentions “theory of mind.” Narratives offer a unique opportunity to engage this capacity, as we identify with characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and track their encounters with friends and enemies, neighbors and lovers.
It is an exercise that hones our real-life social skills, another body of research suggests. Dr. Oatley and Dr. Mar, in collaboration with several other scientists, reported in two studies, published in 2006 and 2009, that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective. This relationship persisted even after the researchers accounted for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels. A 2010 study by Dr. Mar found a similar result in preschool-age children: the more stories they had read to them, the keener their theory of mind — an effect that was also produced by watching movies but, curiously, not by watching television. (Dr. Mar has conjectured that because children often watch TV alone, but go to the movies with their parents, they may experience more “parent-children conversations about mental states” when it comes to films.)
Fiction, Dr. Oatley notes, “is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.”
These findings will affirm the experience of readers who have felt illuminated and instructed by a novel, who have found themselves comparing a plucky young woman to Elizabeth Bennet or a tiresome pedant to Edward Casaubon. Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined.
Annie Murphy Paul is the author, most recently, of “Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives.”
Red Riding Hood: Neurology, Narrative & Storytelling
Once upon a time, half-way back and a little off to one side; this is where the stories live. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin:
Stories are a form of communication, and they open doors. Doors to understandings and concepts that are unbound in time – their relevancies shift according to circumstances, environment and culture.
'To understand and remember stories, readers integrate their knowledge of the world with information in the text. Here we present functional neuroimaging evidence that neural systems track changes in the situation described by a story. Different brain regions track different aspects of a story, such as a character's physical location or current goals. Some of these regions mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities. These results support the view that readers understand a story by simulating the events in the story world and updating their simulation when features of that world change. ' - Psychological Science August 1, 2009 vol. 20 no. 8 989-999
Read that again.:
Some of these regions mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities.
Certain parts of your brain do not discern between 'reality' and 'fiction'. They simply create and act. Further:
'Verbal communication is a joint activity; however, speech production and comprehension have primarily been analyzed as independent processes within the boundaries of individual brains. Here, we applied fMRI to record brain activity from both speakers and listeners during natural verbal communication. We used the speaker's spatiotemporal brain activity to model listeners’ brain activity and found that the speaker's activity is spatially and temporally coupled with the listener's activity. This coupling vanishes when participants fail to communicate. Moreover, though on average the listener's brain activity mirrors the speaker's activity with a delay, we also find areas that exhibit predictive anticipatory responses. We connected the extent of neural coupling to a quantitative measure of story comprehension and find that the greater the anticipatory speaker–listener coupling, the greater the understanding. We argue that the observed alignment of production- and comprehension-based processes serves as a mechanism by which brains convey information.' -PNAS August 10, 2010 vol. 107 no. 32 14425-14430
Before there was written text or visual media such as film, stories were the primary method of cultural transmission:
'The speaker's activity is spatially and temporally coupled with the listener's activity'
Let these two statements combine in your head for a moment; see what they point to – scientific evidence that a story can draw you in, change your perception and have an affect on you.
Suddenly the idea of the magic word doesn't seem too far fetched, does it? Immerse your listeners in a narrative and it becomes their reality. Expose them to it every day to reinforce it – this is the province of politicians and news anchors the world over.
If you go deep enough, the statement 'It's not real' loses potency. Of course it does, because your brain is modelling it 'as if', and some stories are extraordinarily old.
From a 2009 article in Britain's Daily Telegraph:
'A study by anthropologists has explored the origins of folk tales and traced the relationship between varients of the stories recounted by cultures around the world
The researchers adopted techniques used by biologists to create the taxonomic tree of life, which shows how every species comes from a common ancestor.
Dr Jamie Tehrani, a cultural anthropologist at Durham University, studied 35 versions of Little Red Riding Hood from around the world.
Whilst the European version tells the story of a little girl who is tricked by a wolf masquerading as her grandmother, in the Chinese version a tiger replaces the wolf.
Contrary to the view that the tale originated in France shortly before Charles Perrault produced the first written version in the 17th century, Dr Tehrani found that the variants shared a common ancestor dating back more than 2,600 years.
The original ancestor is thought to be similar to another tale, The Wolf and the Kids, in which a wolf pretends to be a nanny goat to gain entry to a house full of young goats. '
Let's think about that:
Red Riding Hood is a modern iteration of a story that's older than the Christian religion. Its themes and characters have inhabited the human consciousness for longer than the dominant religious narrative on this planet of approximately 7.2 billion human beings.
Here at Modern Mythology, we've been talking werewolves, witches, zombie apocalypses and vampires lately. We've given nods to Twilight, to Buffy:The Vampire Slayer, True Blood and more; pop-culture narratives, flirtations with the shadowy Other – these are wildly successful in capturing money and attention.
Millions of people the world over have synchronised their brains in similar ways as they've been drawn into the narratives, and so I find myself wondering – is this actually modern at all? If our brains become spatially and temporally coupled with the tales, are we in fact moving in myth-time, sacred kairotic time?
If stories can be modelled on taxonomic lines, then familial structures apply – then each generation partakes of some of the others.
This year, we see a new iteration of Red Riding Hood – a film released in March, directed by Catherine Hardwicke, of Twilight movie fame no less.
As the second trailer for the new film states in blood red letters:
HOW CAN YOU KEEP OUT WHAT IS ALREADY IN?
Gary Oldman's werewolf hunter Father Solomon makes much of what we've discussed about the terror of the monster, explicit in the trailer:
“The real killer lives here, in this village – it could be your neighbour.”
And even this current version owes much to an earlier predecessor – its structure and plot appears to be strongly influenced by the 1984 film The Company of Wolves.
“The worst kind of wolves are hairy on the inside and when they bite you, they drag you with them to hell.”
Contagion and the Outsider on the Inside – the deepest fear of any community. Is it any wonder that deception is often classed as morally reprehensible? Consider then what seemingly innocuous actions might somehow become imbued with a sense of the sinister if a strange affect occurs.
Imagine what would happen if that which forms groups - the act of communication, of coming together at a fundamental, even neural level – can be used to alter and manipulate individuals and the group itself?
Might this skill be viewed with suspicion - the very act of alternative narrative-construction becoming potentially morally dubious, and even synonymous with evil and falsehood? Even the notion of 'a fabrication' seems to imply something less than righteous; an ersatz version of events which gives the concept of myth its general pejorative sense, doesn't it?
And thus myth and mythmakers are at worst reviled as liars, frauds and mountebanks, and at best regarded as irrelevant and perhaps semi-entertaining because of their ability to make people feel emotion. Even spin-doctors and political speech-writers are somewhat derided by the general populace, and they and their siblings in the advertising industry are either ignored or derided as manipulative individuals whose sole goal is money – something which alienates them from the general populace.
Which means, as aliens, they often are perceived as faintly sinister – they operate in the murkier realms of the human psyche, away from the clear and rational. In a sense they are lunar and mercurial – both in the planetary correspondence sense, and the adjectival. They take the enlightened solar construction of language, born of the neo-cortex, and use it to produce movements in the deep emotive dark of the reptile brain.
And what's more they do this in such a way as to hijack the investment in the rational, non-mythic narratives – the same machinery that models 'reality' can be used to create and work with the mythic precisely because, as already noted, parts of the brain cannot tell the difference!
Due to this this investment in the rational narrative, so-called irrational or mythic narratives must be treated as second-class in modern society, because to do otherwise is to suggest that the dominant narrative may also be a made thing – a fabrication in the truest sense of the word.
This would, apparently, undermine an awful lot of important things.
Imagine, if only for a moment, what would happen if all narratives were held created equal. Imagine if Merlin stood shoulder to shoulder with Einstein, or Zeus went for a stroll with Michael Faraday and they met Thor and Benjamin Franklin chatting about super-heated plasma?
Those who prefer a singular narrative might say that such a moment would be a retrograde step, a movement back to the dark ages of superstition. Yet that moment exists every time we spin a tale and immerse ourselves within it – the data seems to confirm what we already know!
We speak spells, we weave worlds from songs and stories. If it's any kind of movement, it's not merely retrograde because it goes so far back as to be beyond any world we can conceive. It's so far back it's looped around and met the deep future, and the only way we can get to that space is to perform an act of wilful imagination.
Beyond superstition lies hyperstition; fictions that make themselves real in the place where the eldest ancestor meets the last child of mankind. Both are creatures so far beyond us that they are literally dreams, which means that every time you step into that dreamtime, you are with them as part of a community which is hard-wired into the very heart of our brains.
And if that isn't a damn good pedigree for a mythmaker -to be standing amongst wizards, sorcerers and shamans and storytellers and poets from the Before and After It All - then I don't know what is.
So think on that, as you browse this blog, as you cruise the corpus of the contributors here, and maybe muse on it if you go to see the latest spawn of Red Riding Hood at the cinema or next time you become engrossed in a story regardless of media.
Then feel yourself carried away by the spell, or admire the lay of the charm with a professional eye.
Because it doesn't matter which you do when it happens; every time you are drawn in, you're only being human, and that's a very interesting thing to be - however you look at it.
I'll leave you with a quote from the introductory voice-over to the wonderfully odd 1974 film Zardoz:
“In this tale, I am a fake god by occupation - and a magician, by inclination. Merlin is my hero! I am the puppet master. I manipulate many of the characters and events you will see. But I am invented, too, for your entertainment - and amusement. And you, poor creatures, who conjured you out of the clay? Is God in show business too?”
Be seeing you.
Storied Nature of Human Nature
What are we to make of all these sacred texts with their complex origins? How should we read them today? Is there some truth to be found therein, as their followers so fervently proclaim?
One option for scriptural interpretation is to read the Bible and other sacred texts as rich sources for archetypal stories. Here, we draw on some of the insights of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Claude Leví-Strauss, and others. In this approach, the conflicts and dynamics between the characters in the Bible, the Jataka Tales, the Bhagavad Gita, and other scriptures are psychologically profound but not literally true. Of course, such an approach finds large portions of these scriptures irrelevant in the contemporary context and also accords them the same status as other myths, fairy tales, and great literature from around the world. This approach seeks contemporary, true-to-life profundities in sacred stories, but does so with an eye to ambivalence and uncertainty, conflict and catharsis, and the construction of powerful symbols and shared meanings.
We also find in scriptures codes of moral conduct. These can be analyzed for their wisdom and practicality independently of the mythological context. Of course, there is often a large gap between the ideals preached by religious texts and the real behavior of religious people. Nevertheless, the moral teachings of religion may be a source of ethical intuition worthy of serious philosophical and empirical reflection.
Finally, we find in scriptures metaphysical points of view, which may be philosophically important, independent of the larger mythological framework in which they are originally presented. For instance, on each day of creation in Genesis, God repeats the word tov, meaning "good." On the last day of creation, when "God saw everything that he had made," including the humans, God pronounces the universe tov me'od, or "very good" (Genesis 1:31). In its parts, the universe is "good," and on the whole, the universe is "very good." This is a normative orientation to the universe—independent of whether there is a creator God and independent of the new scientific cosmology. What does it mean to say that life is good or not? How might we live differently based on how we answer that question? These are interesting philosophical issues worthy of serious consideration.
It is also interesting to observe that the way humans tend to answer such big questions is through stories. For generations, humans gathered around hearth and fire to tell and retell stories. Much of cultural transmission was in the form of storytelling. Today, people are more likely to gather around the cool glow of the television or the computer screen, but we are no less storied creatures.
Consider the amount of time and money spent today on the entertainment, news, and publishing industries. To this we can add everyday interactions with friends and families, in which we recount events and share gossip. By my rough estimation, we spend perhaps 50 percent or more of our waking hours in storytelling. Humans make stories but, in some sense, we are also made by our stories. In The Republic, Socrates tells his interlocutors that "Our first business will be to supervise the making of fables and legends, rejecting all which are unsatisfactory; and we shall induce nurses and mothers to tell their children only those which we have approved."
Many contemporary thinkers have argued that there is a deep narrative structure of human thought. The psychologist Jerome Bruner argues that "it is through narrative that we create and recreate selfhood, that self is a product of our telling and not some essence to be delved for in the recesses of subjectivity."
Narratives are not just a matter of individuals creating their inner and social selves; narratives are also what bind societies and cultures together. They are how we integrate events and actions through time into meaningful patterns. They specify cause-and-effect relationships and organize these into coherent wholes. Narratives tell us which events and actions are significant and which can be ignored, and they explain how the events of our lives are interconnected. They are our way of constructing coherence and continuity.
Stories always have normative content, describing what is important, what is unimportant, what is better, what is worse, what is good, and what is bad. Our sense of meaning and purpose and our values and motivations are based on these narratives. Philosopher Charles Taylor argues that stories about self and society are how humans construct the "horizons of meaning" that form the critical background for social relations and life choices. Narratives always represent a kind of movement in moral space.
Moral reasoning is not as much a matter of propositional logic and rational choice as some modern philosophers have argued; rather, we make moral judgments based on the analogical applications of powerful stories. Whether it is the story of the Ring of Gyges, the Good Samaritan, the Jataka Tales, or the story of our revered grandparent, we apply these mini-narratives to new situations in the course of our lives. If we do the right thing, it is generally not because of a lot of philosophical reflection and rational cost-benefit analyses, but rather because of a moral teaching we learned from a story. Mini-narratives are nested together into larger stories, stories within stories. It is stories, all the way down.
The most important stories that humans tell, retell, and reframe are referred to as "metanarratives." These master stories are the stuff of ideologies, religions, nationalisms, and cultures. People do not generally recognize them as stories at all, but rather tend to take them as an unarticulated background, the taken-for-granted truth, the way things really are.
In discussing religion and politics with someone who has very different assumptions and beliefs, the debates can quickly become heated. There is a profound gap between the parties in such debates, so much so that they often do not agree about the relevant facts, let alone interpretations of these facts. For instance, a fundamentalist Muslim will refer to the Quran, the Hadith, and his particular reading of world history as relevant background for the debate. A fundamentalist Christian will refer to her particular understanding of the Bible. A Communist approaches economics and world history with a very different set of assumptions from that of a free-market capitalist. Palestinians and Israelis have very different understandings of the relevant histories and facts regarding the history of their conflict. In Sri Lanka, there are the tragic competing narratives of the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists and the Tamil separatist nationalists, each with their own reading of history and a long list of grievances.
In these moments of profound disagreement, both sides are confronted with incomprehensibility of the other's worldview and assumptions. In such arguments, one has the distinct feeling of beating one's head against a wall. "How could someone else be so stupid and stubborn?" one asks oneself. They, the Other, do not even recognize what is obvious to you. They must be irrational, evil, inhuman—so begins the escalating spiral of ideological violence.
How, then, do we adjudicate between the many different stories that humans create and are created by? This drama is played out daily between family and friends, politicians and pundits. As we will see, it is no simple matter to decide whose metanarratives are worthy of the designation true, good, and beautiful. Recognizing this conundrum is the first step. I hope to convince you that Big History—undestanding the set of all scientific facts as a new metanarrative—can help us along the way.
Originally published on the Huffington Post Religion Section, 2012/3/15.
Why Storytellers Lie
A new book explains why humans like to spin yarns—and why we're so likely to stretch the truth when we do.
In a new book out next week, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, author Jonathan Gotschall discusses why we humans have such a strong interest in stories, and argues that we're all storytellers—and all liars too, even if most of us don't realize it, even if most of us are lying primarily to ourselves.
As way of getting into the question of why we're so likely to bend the truth (and so clueless about doing it), let's first talk about why stories are so important to us. "Some thinkers, following Darwin, argue that the evolutionary source of story is sexual selection, not natural selection," Gottschall writes. "Maybe stories...aren't just obsessed with sex; maybe they are ways of getting sex by making gaudy, peacocklike displays of our skill, intelligence, and creativity—the quality of our minds." It's true that it sure doesn't hurt, attraction-wise, when someone can spin a great yarn. Just think of that great fictional storyteller Aeneas, who won over Queen Dido in large part because he did such a good job of enthralling her with his talk of the Trojan War. (Even back then, apparently, people spoke of Trojans prior to sex.)
Stories are useful for so much more than just helping us get lucky, however, as Gottschall points out. For listeners (and readers), stories instruct. From Aesop's fables to essays in women's magazines, they encourage us to think about what happens to people (or anthropomorphized animals) who, say, behave more like hares than tortoises or have a threesome with their best friend and her husband. Stories socialize. By demonstrating the intricacies of human relationships, novels and memoirs encourage us to rehearse what we would do and say in a variety of situations—platonic, familial, and maybe especially romantic. Stories—particularly fictional ones—moralize. They help us figure out our values and whet our need for justice.
When we tell stories about ourselves, they also serve another important (arguably higher) function: They help us to believe our lives are meaningful. "The storytelling mind"—the human mind, in other words—"is allergic to uncertainty, randomness, and coincidence," Gottschall writes. It doesn't like to believe life is accidental; it wants to believe everything happens for a reason. Stories allow us to impose order on the chaos.
And we all concoct stories, Gotschall notes—even those of us who have never commanded the attention of a room full of people while telling a wild tale. "[S]ocial psychologists point out that when we meet a friend, our conversation mostly consists of an exchange of gossipy stories," he writes. "And every night, we reconvene with our loved ones ... to share the small comedies and tragedies of our day."
What's more, in private, we're constantly working on far more serious story projects: memoirs that (for most of us) will never be published, or even written down.
Every day of our lives—sometimes with help working things out via tweets or Facebook status updates—we fine-tune the grand narratives of our lives; the stories of who we are, and how we came to be. Those identity tales are usually significantly fabricated, according to Gottschall, no matter how much we might think of ourselves as people who always tell the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. "Scientists have discovered that the memories we use to form our own life stories are boldly fictionalized," he notes. We might, for instance, tell ourselves we had more power over a break-up than we really did, because it's more pleasant to believe that than to face the messier reality that the other person was as much an agent of the split as we were. Or we might convince ourselves that getting fired was what we subconsciously really wanted; how else would we have found time to write that screenplay we've been thinking about for years?
That's not to say we intentionally or consciously falsify our autobiographies. Telling stories—even to ourselves—is always a matter of playing telephone, as psychologist Nate Kornell noted in a recent Psychology Today piece about the now-infamous performer Mike Daisey (who fabricated parts of a supposedly true story about Apple's questionable business practices in China). "The second time I tell a story, what I'm remembering is the first time I told the story," Kornell writes. "And the 201st time, I'm really remembering the 200th time. Many of our memories are records of our own stories, not of events that actually took place."
The more often we tell a narrative, in other words, the more it changes subtly with each telling—and because we tell ourselves the stories of our own lives over and over and over again, they can change a lot. (Think of all the times you've explained—to yourself or others—how your parents and siblings shaped you, or why you chose to attend that college, or how a teacher or mentor helped you discover your calling.) As Gotschall puts it, "We spend our lives crafting stories that make us the noble—if flawed—protagonists of first-person dramas. ... A life story is not, however, an objective account. A life story is a carefully shaped narrative ... replete with strategic forgetting and skillfully spun meanings." For this reason, he asserts, all memoirs, no matter how much their authors believe them to be true, should come with a disclaimer: "Based on a true story."
I asked Kornell what implications these ideas have for psychotherapy—a treatment that encourages us to repeat our formative stories ad nauseum. Doesn't it, then, help us to misremember our lives, rather than uncover truths about them? He acknowledged that yes, this can happen, as it did during the rash of 1990's childhood sex abuse scandals that revolved largely around "recovered" memories—those that had been supposedly forgotten or repressed for a long time, often many years. "Researchers have found that evidence corroborating abuse is conspicuously absent in one category: People who 'recovered' memories in therapy," Kornell notes. "Corroboration is much easier to find for people who recover memories outside of therapy, suggesting that therapy did implant many false memories."
Sinister as that may sound, therapy likely helps many of us feel better at least in part because it encourages us to become less truthful autobiographers. As studies have shown, depressives tend to have more realistic—and less inflated—perceptions of their importance, abilities, and power in the world than others. So those of us who benefit from therapy may like it in large part because it helps us to do what others can do more naturally: to see ourselves as heroes; to write (and re-write) the stories of our lives in ways that cast us in the best possible light; to believe that we have grown from helpless orphans or outcasts to warriors in control of our fate.
And there isn't necessarily any harm in our little fictions, as long as the main audience is ourselves. After all, most of us are not selling our stories to journalistic enterprises, like This American Life, or to theaters full of people expecting to hear a true tale, the way Mike Daisey was. (Indeed, many opt for straight-up fictionalization, preferring MFA programs to therapy.)
All the same, maybe the next time we rush to condemn a Mike Daisey, we should remember how much we all have a tendency to fictionalize, whether we realize it or not. We like stories because, as Gotschall puts it, we are "addicted to meaning"—and meaning is not always the same as the truth.
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