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June 22, 2010

Why do we need Stories?

By Lewis Mehl-Madrona

Making up story is what are brains do best. In fact, the default mode of the brain is to idly invent what if and if only stories to so that we can run simulations of our social world. We are designed to fill in gaps in our perception. We must reject much environmental information in order to maintain a stable world map.


Dr. V. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee, in their book, Phantoms in the Brain, say it nicely (p. 134). "At any given moment in our waking lives, our brains are flooded with a bewildering array of sensory inputs, all of which must be incorporated into a coherent perspective that's based on what stored memories already tell us is true about ourselves and the world." Imagine the incredible volume of detail available to our brains each second. The art of successful living is knowing what to ignore. People who lack this skill quickly become dysfunctional. They appear overwhelmed, unable to make decisions, even lost. We often give them psychiatric labels.

Inventing story is the default mode of our brains. Whenever we encounter novel data, we make up a story to explain it. Story is also the most efficient way to store information. For example, the story about Pocahantas contains vastly more information than a 20 digit number, but is much easier to remember.

Ramachandran and Blakeslee (p. 89) say, "The mind, like nature, abhors a vacuum and will apparently supply whatever information is needed to complete the scene""If a person having a migraine attack glances around the room and his scotoma [blind spot] falls on a large clock or painting on the wall, the object will disappear completely. But instead of seeing an enormous void in its place, he sees a normal looking wall with paint or wallpaper. The region corresponding to the missing object is simply covered with the same color of pain or wallpaper." This illustrates what we do so expertly revise the world to fit our expectations. We can do this because we are always one step removed from the world. We are seeing the world through a map (or a story) created by our brains to explain the barrage of perceptual information flooding us at any instant. When necessary, we invent. People with Korsakoff's syndrome are a marvelous example of this. These people suffer from the inability to transfer short-term to long-term memory based upon a thiamine deficiency, often related to excess alcohol intake. When asked a question, they completely seriously invent wonderful and usually plausible answers, which change each time the question is asked, for they don't remember what story they've already told. And, given the nature of social interaction, they feel compelled to answer the question, which usually requires the invention of a story.

Ramachandran and Blakeslee say, "In order to generate coherent actions, the brain must have some way of sifting through the superabundance of detail and of ordering it into a stable, internally consistent "belief system' a story that makes sense of the available evidence." As we grow up, we absorb the stories told to us by the important people in our lives. These are the stories that have survival value those that keep us safe. Stories that help us understand that we can't fly, what might happen if we play in the middle of a busy street, and even why not to be outside after dark.

However, some of the stories we absorb are not necessarily helpful or even shared by much of the world. Many people object to the Taliban story about women. Yet, to those children who grow up within these stories, their truth seems self-evident. Gender roles arise from stories into which we are born and are quite arbitrary in many ways.

Ramachandran and Blakeslee say, "Each time a new item of information comes, we fold it seamlessly into our preexisting window." Generally, we incorporate new data into the existing stories by which we are already living. It would be terribly inefficient for our brains to have to revise all of our stories everytime we receive new information, so generally we modify the information rather than our stories whenever possible. This explains how people come to "twist the facts". We need to do this for efficiency of brain function. Fact twisting is occasionally glaringly obvious in medicine. A colleague of mine recently ordered a patient out of his office when she told him her cancer had gone away. "No it hasn't," he shouted. She came to see me in tears. In fact, her MRI scan had revealed a complete absence of tumor. My colleague couldn't accept her explanation that a traditional healer had cured her. Therefore, he insisted that her cancer had not gone away. He couldn't incorporate this fact into his relatively rigid story that said that traditional healers are quacks who don't do anything to help real disease.

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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Authors Bio:
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 Narrative Medicine.