Your Storytelling Brain
Michael S. Gazzaniga is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he heads the new SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind. He is one of the leading researchers in cognitive neuroscience, the study of the neural basis of mind. In 1961, Gazzaniga graduated from Dartmouth College. In 1964, he received a Ph.D. in psychobiology from the California Institute of Technology, where he worked under the guidance of Roger Sperry, with primary responsibility for initiating human split-brain research. In his subsequent work he has made important advances in our understanding of functional lateralization in the brain and how the cerebral hemispheres communicate with one another. Gazzaniga's publication career includes books for a general audience The Social Brain, Mind Matters, and Nature's Mind. His most recent book Who’s In Charge investigates the question of free will in light of current neuroscience.
Michael Gazzaniga: Some people, for instance, love the metaphors that come out of, say, literature and the arts and think that you want to leave those whole and untouched by an analysis as to why we may like those metaphors or why those metaphors seem to help our thinking or any of a number of questions. And there’s a sense that if someone goes in and assesses that situation and gives a biologic dimension to why we do like those things that somehow it’s all diminished by that. And that’s just not true.
In my early part of my career - and it continues - I studied patients who had their two brains disconnected. What we were responsible for was working out the functions of each hemisphere. You could work with them independent of the other influencing it, so you kind of got to study it alone. And over many, many years the basic finding is, of course, that one brain didn’t know what the other one was doing in such people that the information doesn’t transfer between the brains. We found out that in the left brain there’s a special system that seems to always want to explain actions and moods that we have after they occurred, so we would put a question to the right nonspeaking hemisphere and it, in effect, would direct the left hand to do something. And so the patient would do that. And then we would simply say to the patient, “Well, why did you do that?” The patient would make up a story that would explain why their hand had done one thing and why the other hand had done another thing and wove a tale that made coherent, as it were, the behaviors that are coming from all these separate brain areas.
The behavior comes out and then there is this little narrator up there that turns it into a story that makes us feel coherent and unified. Turns out it’s a thing in the left hemisphere that does this. And we called it The Interpreter, and it’s a very powerful force in the human condition and it’s always trying to figure out and seek explanations for our behavior. That’s what it does.
I think the human as a storytelling animal, as some people put it, is because this system is continually trying to keep the story coherent and, even though these actions may be coming from processors going on outside of, initially, of conscious awareness, an action is produced and then you might want to explain that action as to be part of your coherence and your story, your narrative.
Why does the human always seem to like fiction? What is that? Could it be, as some people have suggested, could it be that that prepares us for unexpected things that happen in our life because we’ve already thought about them in our fantasy world or read about them in a fictitious setting and saw how those characters acted and so then when we’re confronted with it we’re ready? We’ve sort of lived through that movie, as it were.
So why do we like that stuff? Well, maybe that is a reason why we like it. And to think of all of those things seems to me just to make it all richer, a richer experience.
Directed / Produced by
Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd
The left hemisphere of the brain is always trying to make sense of past thoughts and experiences. Cognitive Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga ponders our need to hear and tell coherent stories about ourselves.
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