from the world's big
Game of Thrones: Why Do We Love Impossible Stories?
Storytelling isn’t an escape from reality, it’s a deep dive into it.
Every Monday morning I wake up to jot down my thoughts on the previous evening’s episode of Game of Thrones. During the show I take a few notes, though I like to sleep on the events before finalizing my ideas. If you’ve read during previous weeks, this column is not a recap as much as pulling concepts from each episode that broadly speak to our culture, and I try not to be too reactionary.
Sure, I’ve seen a few comments of people complaining, “Can’t you leave anything sacred? Do we have to politicize a show?” But that’s always been the function of great storytelling. No mythology is created in a vacuum. In order for the story to have relevance it must address timely issues. What could be more timely than climate change, immigration issues, and cults of inflated personalities?
Storytelling isn’t an escape from reality, it’s a deep dive into reality using highly imaginative metaphors and analogies. Two of the greatest war epics in history, the Iliad and the Bhagavad Gita, have lasted thousands of years because they speak directly to so many facets of the human condition. Both are, in parts, fantastical and biologically impossible, appealing to the same emotional mechanisms inside of us that love the impossible, such as dragons and zombies with serious javelin skills.
Yet if it were only fantasy these tales would leave us unfulfilled. Stories have to impact our understanding of the world around us or else they wouldn’t make sense. The great archer Arjuna’s existential crisis on the battlefield is one of the most pivotal moments in the Indian mythos because it also speaks to what the government expected of him: a player in the caste system expected to fulfill his role as an agent of the armed forces. Yes, Krishna says, you have to kill your cousins and friends. To justify his decree the godhead reminds Arjuna that he reincarnates humans like humans change clothes, another impossibility that plays to our penchant for essentialism—in this case there’s something inside of us, a soul, that lives on, alleviating the archer’s guilt.
The soul that truly lives on is the story, not the human. That’s how a wicked, power-hungry queen like Cersei, who destroys everything in her path, comes from the same tradition as the wicked, power-hungry goddess of magic, Circe, Homer’s homage to the Greek spinster. (In the Odyssey, Hermes militarizes Odysseus with a drug called moly to protect him from Circe’s magic; draw your own parallels there.) Themes repeat even as actresses are replaced.
Game of Thrones is a modern mythology. The media we use to tell stories today are quite different from shlokas and dactylic hexameter. In this case it’s not the medium but the message that matters. What’s reincarnated throughout time is this need to communicate to one another to remind us of our place in this world. In Myth and Reality, the Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade writes:
To know the myths is to learn the secret origin of things. In other words, one learns not only how things came into existence but also where to find them and how to make them reappear when they disappear.
Literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall understands this necessity of narrative. Humans are, in his words, storytelling animals. Through stories we define ourselves as individuals and cultures. Those who came before us help to shape our sense of self through the stories they tell. What they tell we repeat and remix for our own purposes.
In The Storytelling Animal, Gottschall writes that narrative “suggests that the human mind was shaped for story, so that it could be shaped by story.” Religion, philosophy, economics, societies, governments—everything is a story we tell to convince ourselves of our place in the world. We reconfirm our beliefs by reiterating these stories, over and over again, until they become the lens through which we view reality. We pass down traditions to our children, who borrow the essence while translating them to suit their own needs. Life perpetuates through narrative as much as genes.
Which is why Game of Thrones has become such a phenomenon. In a time of binge watching and endless choice, it is the single show millions of people discuss in real time on social media. When I was growing up in the eighties, the next day at school often involved discussions about the previous evening’s shared experience. Miss it and you have no voice. That’s why I don’t get choked up when people complain about online spoilers. Don’t log in if you’re not ready to discuss. Game of Thrones is probably the only show in which this is still the case.
And it’s also why we’ll tune in next week even given the overt stretching in episode six. In classical mythologies it was not unusual for characters to appear out of nowhere to fulfill a singular role, regardless of how illogical it seemed. Enter Uncle Benjen. Having Bran warg into Jon Snow’s sword Longclaw (did you see its eyes open?) to contact dear uncle feels too convenient. Maybe the writers believed they needed to make Jon and Dany’s hand holding more dramatic, but the route there seemed forced.
C’est la vie. Some series have fizzled out from too many complicating and competing storylines (Lost) and some just lost steam (Mad Men) while others kept focus for many seasons (Breaking Bad) and other still knew when to end (The Leftovers).
Death is inescapable, Beric reminds us, but still we fight. The end of this story is near. There will be carnage we’ll love and that which we won’t, and no two of us will agree on the finality. But one thing is certain: we’ll keep watching, so essential is the story to us.
Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT tomorrow.
A physics paper proposes neither you nor the world around you are real.
- A new hypothesis says the universe self-simulates itself in a "strange loop".
- A paper from the Quantum Gravity Research institute proposes there is an underlying panconsciousness.
- The work looks to unify insight from quantum mechanics with a non-materialistic perspective.
More on the hypothesis and the backstory of the Quantum Gravity Research institute —<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="3d6209cb3564afd37b078404e383a2a2"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/xWEErQ_LNXY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.
- There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
- "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
- "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
A study looks at the performance benefits delivered by asthma drugs when they're taken by athletes who don't have asthma.
- One on hand, the most common health condition among Olympic athletes is asthma. On the other, asthmatic athletes regularly outperform their non-asthmatic counterparts.
- A new study assesses the performance-enhancement effects of asthma medication for non-asthmatics.
- The analysis looks at the effects of both allowed and banned asthma medications.
WADA uncertainty<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMDc4NjUwN30.fFTvRR0yJDLtFhaYiixh5Fa7NK1t1T4CzUM0Yh6KYiA/img.jpg?width=980" id="01b1b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2fd91a47d91e4d5083449b258a2fd63f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="urine sample for drug test" />
Image source: joel bubble ben/Shutterstock<p>When inhaled β-agonists first came out just before the 1972 Olympics, they were immediately banned altogether by the WADA as possible doping substances. Over the years, the WADA has reexamined their use and refined the organization's stance, evidence of the thorniness of finding an equitable position regarding their use. As of January 2020, only three β-agonists are allowed — salbutamol, formoterol, and salmeterol —and only in inhaled form. Oral consumption appears to have a greater effect on performance.</p>
The study<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTIzMDQyMX0.Gk4v-7PCA7NohvJjw12L15p7SumPCY0tLdsSlMrLlGs/img.jpg?width=980" id="d3141" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ebe7b30a315aeffcb4fe739095cf0767" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="runner at starting position on track" />
Image source: MinDof/Shutterstock<p>Of primary interest to the authors of the study is confirming and measuring the performance improvement to be gained from β-agonists when they're ingested by athletes who don't have asthma.</p><p>The researchers performed a meta-analysis of 34 existing studies documenting 44 randomized trials reporting on 472 participants. The pool of individuals included was broad, encompassing both untrained and elite athletes. In addition, lab tests, as opposed to actual competitions, tracked performance. The authors of the study therefore recommend taking its conclusions with just a grain of salt.</p><p>The effects of both WADA-banned and approved β-agonists were assessed.</p>
Approved β-agonists and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzkxODk0M30.3RssFwk_tWkHRkEl_tIee02rdq2tLuAePifnngqcIr8/img.jpg?width=980" id="39a99" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b1fe4a580c6d4f8a0fd021d7d6570e2a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="vaulter clearing pole" />
Image source: Andrey Yurlov/Shutterstock<p>What the meta-analysis showed is that the currently approved β-agonists didn't significantly improve athletic performance among those without asthma — what very slight benefit they <em>may</em> produce is just enough to prompt the study's authors to write that "it is still uncertain whether approved doses improve anaerobic performance." They note that the tiny effect did increase slightly over multiple weeks of β-agonist intake.</p>
Banned β-agonist and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjI3ODU5Mn0.vyoxSE5EYjPGc2ZEbBN8d5F79nSEIiC6TUzTt0ycVqc/img.jpg?width=980" id="de095" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="02fdd42dfda8e3665a7b547bb88007ef" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="swimmer mid stroke" />
Image source: Nejron Photo/Shutterstock<p>The study found that for athletes without asthma, however, the use of currently banned β-agonists did indeed result in enhanced performance. The authors write, "Our meta-analysis shows that β2-agonists improve anaerobic performance by 5%, an improvement that would change the outcome of most athletic competitions."</p><p>That 5 percent is an average: 70-meter sprint performance was improved by 3 percent, while strength performance, MVC (maximal voluntary contraction), was improved by 6 percent.</p><p>The analysis also revealed that different results were produced by different methods of ingestion. The percentages cited above were seen when a β-agonist was ingested orally. The effect was less pronounced when the banned substances were inhaled.</p><p>Given the difference between the results for allowed and banned β-agonists, the study's conclusions suggest that the WADA has it about right, at least in terms of selection of allowable β-agonists, as well as the allowable dosage method.</p>