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Articles    H3'ed 3/23/11

Narrative and Science: Day 13 of the Australian Journey

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Day 13 is our last full day in Australia and took place at the University of Melbourne's Center for International Mental Health in their School of Population Health.   The format consisted of informal discussions with faculty and students followed by a formal presentation by me with subsequent discussions.

Today was more academic.    I talked about the compatibility of indigenous views of narrative and of narrative practice with contemporary neuroscience and with social constructionism as well as the social construction of the brain as typified by Charles Whitehead, Robert Turner, and others.   Of course, we had to begin by acknowledging Michael White, a legend and in his own country, at that, but also pointing out, as I have mentioned in previous Days, that Michael represents a branch on a very large tree for which I submit that indigenous people are the trunk and the roots.   Michael approached narrative as technique, as finding the client's story and changing it through a variety of clever externalization techniques.   As useful as this is, one gets to the end of the branch and wonders, "Now where do we go?"   This is when we turn our attention to the insights and practices of indigenous peoples.

The indigenous perspective begins with the understanding that all human knowledge exists in story form.   I have mentioned Shank and Abelson during these 13 days, and they lead the contemporary version of that insight.   Knowledge exists in order to be used.   Useless knowledge is not retained for long.   Knowledge must be interesting and have a purpose.   We do not typically clutter our brains with useless facts (except for people with certain types of autism -- and the argument here is that they are not using the areas of their social brain for storing information about social relationships, intentions, desires, and all those nuances, so they have room to spare for trivial information).   And, even the determination of what is useful requires a story about how to get around in the world and get things done.  

I proposed an exercise.   Try to imagine something without a story.   Take the example of a hammer.   Can you think of a hammer without imagining its being used?    Perhaps you will remember the last time you used a hammer, or a memorable time involving hammers, or, in my case, a story told by a man who almost drowned in a pick-up truck that drove into a lake because the water shorted his window's electrical system and he had no way to open them.   From then on, he said, he carried a hammer in his glove compartment.   No one could image an object isolated from its use or usefulness.  

University of Auckland Professor Brian Boyd believes that our large brains evolved to manage stories, and, especially social stories.   As we shared life with more and more people, which complicated our social lives enormously, we needed many stories to keep track of who was who, of status and hierarchy relationships, or favors owed or due, and so much more.   Evolution created our big brains to create and manage story.

Washington University neuroscientist Marcus Raichle showed that the default mode of the brain is to make up stories -- in effect, when our brains are on "idle", we run simulations of past, present, and future social situations, exploring how we might have behaved differently and what might have happened if we had, how we might behave in our next interaction with a person, and alternative approaches we might take to a particularly problematic social relationship to get closer to our desired outcome.   We've all done this as we drive home, or walk home, or bicycle home, or take the Metro home.   We imagine scenes that will happen when we arrive or during the evening and we imagine ourselves in "little" plays of what will happen if we do X, Y, or Z.   This is an example of our use of story and simulated stories for social survival.

Indigenous people, for the most part, implicitly operated within an awareness of story as social neurotransmitter, as the means by which communities and social networks were held together.   This remains true.   Story is the building block of culture.   We feel connected with others in accordance with how many stories we share.   We define our sub-cultural groups through recognition of shared story.

Abelson and Shank talk about story as the template into which memory is stored.    University of Edinburgh developmental psychologist Colwyn Trevarthan has shown that the narrative structure is the basis for maternal-infant communication and that infants are socialized into participating in narratives from birth.   This narrative structure takes the form of a sequence of rising tension, climax, and resolution with characters (mother and baby) interacting within a motivated conversation of shared interests and intentionality.   Music is similarly non-verbally narrative.   Eventually word come to ride on top of the musicality of narrative, and languaged story is born.

British neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen1 has laid out a story for how story is born within the infant.   From Trevarthan's musical pre-verbal narrative, the infant slowly developed an intentionality detector, which he calls the ID, a perceptual module of brain circuits designed to interpret motion stimuli in terms of the volitional mental states of goal and desire.   This allows us to make sense of the movements of all animals, and at least to categorize our desired response as to approach or to avoid.   Simply put, agents in stories have goals and desires.   They want something or to get somewhere.   ID identifies agents and then speculates about what they might want or where they might want to go.   Anything with self-propelled motion qualifies as an agent.   Of course we are most interested in what agents want from us or want to do to us.   Premack2 believes that goal detection is hard-wired into our species with goals being perceived from a detection of motion toward or away from something.   ID in essence identifies self-propelled agents and asks where they are going and for what purpose.   This is the essence of a story.   This will lead to some false positives, because we can misinterpret agents being propelled by others (water) as agents that are self-propelled.   Next comes EDD, or Eye Direction Detector, which detects the direction to which Other's eyes are looking.   EDD detects the presence of eyes or eye-like stimuli, it determines whether eyes are directed toward it or toward something else, and it infers from personal experience that agents see what their eyes are directed toward.    Then comes SAM, or Shared Attention Mechanism.   SAM builds triadic representations, as in "The dog is looking at me looking at my food."   Next comes ToMM, or Theory of Mind Mechanism, which integrates the earlier three into volitional mental states like pretending, imagining, believing, thinking, knowing, dreaming, guessing, deceiving.   Now we have sophisticated stories!

Narrative is everywhere.   Mathematical proofs are marvelous stories with characters (variables) taking place in sometimes wild spaces (see typology) with beginnings (assumptions), middle (the meat of the proof), climax (the turning point of the proof), and ending (the therefore, the final summation).   The plot takes the form of operations conducted on the variables.   The meaning may be only apparent to other mathematicians (the audience), but, to them, it can be a profound and emotionally laden meaning, full of value and purpose.   All of our theories and heuristics are stories about how the world is supposed to work.   Religions are stories about how the invisible world is supposed to behave.   To understand someone, we must listen to his or her stories.   To understand a culture, we listen to its creation stories.  

We also talk about changing stories, which involves neuroplasticity.   When we introduce a new story, we begin to create a new network of synaptic connections.   The more we tell this story, the stronger the synaptic connections become.   An oft told story competes for traffic from less told stories.   The oft told story becomes the dominant story.   We'd all prefer to take a freeway to a country road when we're in a hurry.   The roads most traveled are the roads that persist.


1.   Baron-Cohen, Simon. (1997).   Mindblindness.   Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

2.   Premack, D., (1990). Do infants have a theory of self-propelled objects?   Cognition 36: 1-16.

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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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