Writers Make Sense Out of Chaos

Question: Do you think our culture is getting better or\r\n worse at telling stories?

Robert McKee: Oh, in terms\r\n of the skill of executing stories, I would say we’re getting better.  \r\nThat’s one thing.  Okay, I think it’s clear.  For example, I mentioned \r\nthe series, “Damages,” and in fact there was just an article in New York\r\n Magazine the other day about “Damages” and the brilliant way in which \r\nthat series does something that really has never been explored quite \r\nthat way before.  They use flash-forwards as hooks.  They give you \r\nglimpses of the future, but only glimpses, and so they put you in a \r\nstate of semi-dramatic irony.  You know more than the character knows. \r\nThe character’s going to die.  Okay, you know that.  This character is \r\ngoing to die.  Then you go and flash-forward to the death, all right?  \r\nAnd now you watch... you go back and you watch them in the present.  So,\r\n you know what he doesn’t know.  You know he’s going to die, but you \r\ndon’t know how or why he’s going to die.  And so, and you don’t know who\r\n did it, who killed him, and so forth.  And so there’s lots of hooky \r\nquestions and curiosity, but it’s also a bit of dramatic irony.  That’s \r\namazing.

When you see it, you wonder why hasn’t this been done \r\nbefore?  So, in terms of executing stories, I would say that the \r\ntechniques are better than ever.
In terms of the content of the\r\n stories, that’s another question.  And in terms of what these stories \r\nare about, the depth to which they bring their characters, I would say, \r\nno.  The stories are more shallow overall.  And that’s a huge \r\ngeneralization.  But post-modernism itself, by definition, means \r\nshallowness.  It means a satire of the techniques of writing.  Okay?  \r\nCalling attention to the techniques of writing, and that, of course, \r\ndivorces you from the content by the very nature of it.  And so in this \r\npost-post-modern world, or wherever we are now, I would say that as a \r\ngrand generalization, that the content of stories are not the quality \r\nthat they were in the 50 golden years from the 1920’s to the 1970’s on \r\nstage, page and screen, every where in the world, especially the \r\nEnglish-speaking world, the films, the plays, and the novels of that \r\nperiod were magnificent in content.
And so we’ve learned to be \r\nmore clever, more experimental, and more skilled, often, in the telling \r\nof stories today, but I can’t say that the content is what it used to \r\nbe.
Question: Are you optimistic about the future of \r\nstorytelling?

Robert McKee:
I never lose faith in \r\nstory, film may come and go as an art form, and art forms have come and \r\ngone.  Opera, more and less, came and went and then just gets revived \r\nendlessly.  There’s very little cutting edge opera today.  There are art\r\n forms that rise up and dominate a period of time in human history and \r\nthen recede.  And so film goes though that and recedes.  So what, \r\nbecause there will always be story.  And the medium of the future, I \r\nthink, is television.  But certainly the novel and the theater is still \r\nalive and well, for the most part, despite some pretty mediocre \r\nstorytelling.
And so, the art of storytelling, the art of \r\nstory, I never worry about.  People will always tell stories and they \r\nwill tell really great stories and beautiful stories.  But the medium of\r\n the future, the medium that writers choose to do what is the best work \r\nin the future that changes.
Human beings... a great critic said\r\n once, Kenneth Burke said, “Stories are equipment for living.”  Human \r\nbeings need storytelling in order to make sense out of life, in order to\r\n live as well and civilized as a human being can. And so they will go to\r\n the storyteller for meaningful emotional experiences that they cannot \r\nget from life, and then it’s just a matter of which medium the \r\nstorytellers of the future choose to dominate that period in time, and \r\nthen that too will change in time.
\r\nDo we need stories more today than we used to?

Robert \r\nMcKee:
The time that people spend in stories created for them by a \r\nstorytelling artist today compared to 50 to 100 years ago, it’s triple \r\nor quadruple what it used to be.  Do they need it more?  Maybe.  You \r\ncould make an argument that the disintegration and relativization of \r\nvalues in contemporary society is so blurring that people desperately \r\nneed stories to help them make sense out of life because what we are \r\nused to agree upon nobody agrees on anymore.  Society is, it’s obvious, \r\nbut is so splintered and so split.  I mean, there’s a spectrum that runs\r\n from "I am my brother’s keeper" to "Every man for himself" and we call \r\nthat liberals, and on the right conservatives.  And this argument over \r\nare we our brother’s keeper, or is it every man for himself, has never \r\nbeen more ugly and fragmenting of society.  And so people are clustering\r\n now, depending on their position on that spectrum, of caring or not \r\ncaring in such ways that they cannot even talk to people who are \r\nanywhere else on that spectrum.
And as a result, there is more \r\nchaos in daily life and then throw in the great recession and a few \r\nother chaoses like wars, and people are desperate.  And they need \r\nstory.  Yeah, I think you could make an argument.  Now, are they getting\r\n the quality of stories, comic or tragic, that would help them live \r\nthrough this really ugly period in history?  Probably not.  But the \r\nwriters do their best.  Because the writers are just citizens too, you \r\nknow? And they’ve got no necessarily more philosophical, psychological \r\ninsight into this than anybody else. So the writer has to be a \r\nphilosopher of a kind today that they’ve never had to be before.  They \r\nhave to make sense out of a kind of chaos that no one ever confronted \r\nbefore.  I mean the worst thing that, you know, a hundred years ago, and\r\n the worst thing that could happen is that you die.  So, people told \r\nstories about how to live well, live meaningfully if you could, or \r\ntragedy.  But death was the worst thing.  Well, there are far worse \r\nthings now.  Far worse things.  And people are literally in living \r\nhells.  They’d be better off dead, all around the world.  The suffering \r\nin the Third World today is of an extreme that the Third World has never\r\n suffered before because, generally speaking, in the Third World people \r\ndidn’t starve to death, they could farm.  But even that in many ways has\r\n been lost and for a lot of reasons.  But yeah, the world is in a worse \r\nstate than I know from history, and people would probably say, the Black\r\n Plague was the worse.  But I don’t think so, because people understood \r\nthe Plague: You get sick and you die.  Who can understand the banking \r\nsystem?  Who can understand love?  Who can understand parenting?  I mean\r\n these are things people thought they knew; they don’t know anymore.  \r\nAnd so the Plague at least was clear.  It was terrible, but it was \r\nclear.
The problem for people today is confusion in a world \r\nthat should make sense.  In a world in which you have more communication\r\n than ever, makes less and less sense than ever.  And so you need \r\nstorytellers to make sense out of that chaos, but it’s as I said, it’s a\r\n chaos of a very different kind today, and the writer struggles.

We spend more time than ever consuming stories. Do we need them more than we used to?

Sign of the times: School designed to limit impact of mass shootings

With little progress on other avenues to preventing mass shootings, one firm has employed architecture to save students.

Image source: TowerPinkster
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A school in Michigan is being remodeled in a way to minimize the effect of a shooter should the worst happen.
  • It features limited sight lines, bullet proof windows, and doors that can be locked at the push of a button.
  • Some research casts doubt on how effective the plans will actually be.
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How do 80-year-old 'super-agers' have the brains of 20-somethings?

Most elderly individuals' brains degrade over time, but some match — or even outperform — younger individuals on cognitive tests.

Mind & Brain
  • "Super-agers" seem to escape the decline in cognitive function that affects most of the elderly population.
  • New research suggests this is because of higher functional connectivity in key brain networks.
  • It's not clear what the specific reason for this is, but research has uncovered several activities that encourage greater brain health in old age.

At some point in our 20s or 30s, something starts to change in our brains. They begin to shrink a little bit. The myelin that insulates our nerves begins to lose some of its integrity. Fewer and fewer chemical messages get sent as our brains make fewer neurotransmitters.

As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can't always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That's part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.

But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old "super-agers" perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.

Just as sharp as the whippersnappers

To find out what's behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.

First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants' brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.

The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we're not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one's self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.

The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item "sticks out"). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.

Default Mode Network

Wikimedia Commons

An image of the brain highlighting the regions associated with the default mode network.

How to ensure brain health in old age

While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how "gracefully" the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. "We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager," said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. "It's not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That's one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to."

To date, there is some preliminary evidence of ways that you can keep your brain younger longer. For instance, more education and a cognitively demanding job predicts having higher cognitive abilities in old age. Generally speaking, the adage of "use it or lose it" appears to hold true; having a cognitively active lifestyle helps to protect your brain in old age. So, it might be tempting to fill your golden years with beer and reruns of CSI, but it's unlikely to help you keep your edge.

Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There's also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.

For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don't have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.

Without academic freedom, we might never see the truth. Here’s why.

Sometimes, academic expression can make people uncomfortable. But this tension is a feature, not a bug.

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • The way we communicate is dictated in part by the setting that that communication takes place in. You're supposed to tell your doctor everything; on the other hand, you wouldn't tell your business competitor much at all.
  • In academia, communication is supposed to be somewhat provocative. The reaction to a provocative idea can't be to silence the one expressing it, but to approach it from the other side of the argument. One way to think about this is that if you don't understand the other side of an issue, then you can't claim to understand the issue.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
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