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Why do we need Stories?

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Ramachandran and Blakeslee wrote, "[I]f you [revised your story and created a new model about the world and yourself] for every little piece of threatening information, your behavior would soon become chaotic and unstable; you would go mad." Some do. I believe we have spent far too much time categorizing the symptoms of mental suffering into entities that may or may not exist (psychiatric diagnoses) and failed to look at the underlying brain processes that produce symptoms. I suspect that the symptoms are myriad and confusing, while the underlying processes are more straightforward and extremes of things that ordinary people do. For example, when a television is malfunctioning, the output is chaotic and unpredictable. The source of the malfunction, however, may be quite simple. While people are not televisions, both are complex systems in which small dysfunctions in information flow and relationships can lead to large disturbances in output and behavior. Life in our current world requires a certain degree of refusal to accept new information. The flow of information is so great that how could we ever assimilate all that assails us. We must be far more selective in the name of efficiency. The performance that we call "crazy" occurs when we do modify our models (stories) about the world every time new information appears. Here's an example from one of my clients who has been given the diagnosis of schizophrenia:

Mary walks into a bar. She sees a woman wearing the same top that she once wore that someone gave her ten years ago and she lost. She revises her story about the world to conclude that this woman found her top and took it to the almost boyfriend from 10 years ago who gave it to her and now he's angry at her that she lost her top. Then she begins to wonder about the relationship between this woman and her almost boyfriend and begins to hear his voice mocking her about his new relationship with this woman. She proceeds to invent a story about him and this woman being together and making fun of her. She proceeds to confront the woman about sleeping with her boyfriend. Meanwhile, the top may or may not be the same. It might just be similar. Memory changes after 10 years. The woman wearing the top is highly unlikely to know Mary's almost boyfriend from 10 years ago since Mary and he were in a city more than 1000 km away. Mary has taken a small piece of data (that girl's wearing a top that looks like a top I once had and lost 10 years ago) and revised her whole story about the world. Her new revision makes it seem reasonable to confront this woman whom she doesn't know in a bar she's never entered before about sleeping with her boyfriend. We call this crazy. That's why most of us would just ignore the top or think vaguely that we had a similar top once upon a time and let it go.

Ramachandran and Blakeslee write, " What the left hemisphere does instead is either ignore the anomaly completely or distort it to squeeze into your pre-existing framework, to preserve stability. " This is generally wise, though not always. Those of us who study change and transformation ponder the threshold at which anomolous information becomes too dramatically different from the stories we are living, so as to force us to consider revising our pre-existing stories to incorporate this new information. In essence, psychotherapy (and all healing) is the art of presenting sufficiently powerful contradictions and exceptions to people so that they have no choice but to revise the stories by which they live. An elder told me that healing consisted of replacing bad stories with good ones. The threshold for healing involves determining how to help people "stop their world" long enough to recognize that their story isn't the only possible one.

We are well on the way to that goal when we recognize that the world is full of stories. As one elder told me, all stories are true where they are told. Explanatory pluralism is the recognition that many equally valid stories exist to explain "how things are" and "how things work". None are privileged. The criterion for acceptance should be, "does it work now, here in this place, for what we need?" Stories that continue to work remain. Stories that stop working disappear.

We need stories because we are nothing but story. Story is the sum total of all that we are and all that we make and all of our interactions. We are dramas unfolding. We are tragedies and comedies. We are explanations from many perspectives.

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Lewis Mehl-Madrona graduated from Stanford University School of Medicine and completed residencies in family medicine and in psychiatry at the University of Vermont. He is the author of Coyote Medicine, Coyote Healing, Coyote Wisdom, and (more...)
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