Your Storytelling Brain

The brain is hardwired for storytelling. What stories give us, in the end, is reassurance. And as childish as it may seem, that sense of security – that coherent sense of self – is essential to our survival. 


Cognitive Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, a pioneer in the study of hemispheric (left vs. right brain) specialization describes "the Interpreter" - a left hemisphere function that organizes our memories into plausible stories. Less romantic, perhaps, than Gone With the Wind, the Interpreter may help to explain our species' profound relationship with storytelling. 



'Mesmerizing!'

'Stunning!' 

'A Mind-Blowing Triumph!'

Mock these movie poster clichés if you will, but they speak to something we want from a story from about the age of two onward. Some of us might get a bit finicky in later years about which stories we allow to seduce us, and how many spoonfuls of critical reflection we want along with our dose of narrative intoxicant, but there's no getting around it: humans love stories. In fact, in some fundamental sense, we need them. 

Cognitive science has long recognized narrative as a basic organizing principle of memory. From early childhood, we tell ourselves stories about our actions and experiences. Accuracy is not the main objective – coherence is. If necessary, our minds will invent things that never happened, people who don't exist, simply to hold the narrative together. How often have you had a fierce disagreement with a partner or sibling over who gave you that Three Tenors CD or which of you made the pathetic clay reindeer Christmas ornament? How can two eyewitnesses at a trial be absolutely convinced of two conflicting accounts of the same events? 

This tendency to confabulate – to fill in the gaps of memory with plausible inventions that preserve narrative continuity – is most pronounced in patients with significant memory loss, or in laboratory tests with participants who have had the connection cut between the left and right hemispheres of their brain (a procedure that, surprisingly enough, rarely results in death or significant impairment of function). Michael Gazzaniga, a cognitive neuroscientist and the author of Who's in Charge?, has performed countless experiments with split-brain participants. They have revealed a function of the left hemisphere called 'the Interpreter,' which jumps in to make sense of memories, when it has no direct access to those memories or the context in which they were made. 

What's the Significance? 

The arts and sciences have had an uneasy relationship over the past couple centuries, as science has attempted to disentangle itself from its roots in superstition and magic and build a firm foundation on more empirical grounds. So lovers of film and literature may react with suspicion to any attempt at neurocognitive analysis of their passions. This is misguided, says Gazzaniga – understanding our hardwired need for narrative coherence doesn't diminish the aesthetic power of a great story – nor will it enable us anytime soon to program computers to write like William Blake. But it may help to explain what's going on when we are mesmerized or stunned by a novel or the latest Matt Damon flick. 

Gazzaniga suspects that narrative coherence helps us to navigate the world – to know where we're coming from and where we're headed. It tells us where to place our trust and why. One reason we may love fiction, he says, is that it enables us to find our bearings in possible future realities, or to make better sense of our own past experiences. What stories give us, in the end, is reassurance. And as childish as it may seem, that sense of security – that coherent sense of self – is essential to our survival. 

Follow Jason Gots (@jgots) on Twitter

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

 


3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less
Big Think Edge
  • Push Past Negative Self-Talk: Give Yourself the Proper Fuel to Attack the World, with David Goggins, Former NAVY SealIf you've ever spent 5 minutes trying to meditate, you know something most people don't realize: that our minds are filled, much of the time, with negative nonsense. Messaging from TV, from the news, from advertising, and from difficult daily interactions pulls us mentally in every direction, insisting that we focus on or worry about this or that. To start from a place of strength and stability, you need to quiet your mind and gain control. For former NAVY Seal David Goggins, this begins with recognizing all the negative self-messaging and committing to quieting the mind. It continues with replacing the negative thoughts with positive ones.

10 new things we’ve learned about death

If you don't want to know anything about your death, consider this your spoiler warning.

Culture & Religion
  • For centuries cultures have personified death to give this terrifying mystery a familiar face.
  • Modern science has demystified death by divulging its biological processes, yet many questions remain.
  • Studying death is not meant to be a morbid reminder of a cruel fate, but a way to improve the lives of the living.
Keep reading Show less
Big Think Edge
  • Master Execution: How to Get from Point A to Point B in 7 Steps, with Rob Roy, Retired Navy SEALUsing the principles of SEAL training to forge better bosses, former Navy SEAL and founder of the Leadership Under Fire series Rob Roy, a self-described "Hammer", makes people's lives miserable in the hopes of teaching them how to be a tougher—and better—manager. "We offer something that you are not going to get from reading a book," says Roy. "Real leaders inspire, guide and give hope."Anybody can make a decision when everything is in their favor, but what happens in turbulent times? Roy teaches leaders, through intense experiences, that they can walk into any situation and come out ahead. In this lesson, he outlines seven SEAL-tested steps for executing any plan—even under extreme conditions or crisis situations.