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Hooked on Stories February 22, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature, Philosophy of Literature.
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 For someone like me who has researched and written about Narrative Philosophy (philosophy involving the phenomenon of storytelling) for close to 30 years, with special emphasis on Narrative Ethics, it is particularly gratifying to watch the latest developments in neuroscientific research concerning the human urge to tell stories. Some of my students may remember me showing them a science video of the “man with two brains,” a man who had his two brain hemispheres severed, and resorted to making up stories about his associations because he couldn’t explain them any other way. For years I have told my students that the man with two brains was trying to get control of a chaotic situation, and therefore chose to tell a story about it—-an example of why we tell stories: to get a grip, to make unmanageable life manageable. In short, that’s why we tell stories of historic events, why we have myths and legends, why we love novels and movies, and certainly also why we lie. 

The doctor in charge of research in connection with this man’s case was Dr. Mike Gazzaniga, UCSB. And a new article written by Jessica Marshall and published in NewScientist, “Mind Reading: the Science of Storytelling,”  notes that Gazzaniga has pursued the phenomenon of our natural capacity to confabulate in his subsequent work:

Nobody has done more to highlight the central role of storytelling in human psychology than neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga of the University of California, Santa Barbara. In studies of people in whom the connection between the two sides of the brain has been severed, he has shown that the left hemisphere is specialised for interpreting our feelings, actions and experiences in the form of narrative. In fact, Gazzaniga believes this is what creates our sense of a unified self. We also seem to use storytelling to reconcile our conscious and subconscious thoughts – as, for example, when we make choices based on subconscious reasoning and then invent fictions to justify and rationalise them (New Scientist, 7 October 2006, p 32).

The psychology of narrativity (Daniel Morrow, Rolf Zwaan) has reached interesting results over the past 20 years, and now neuroscience is weighing in with corroborative research:

It would appear that we don’t just tell stories to make sense of ourselves, we actually adopt the stories of others as though we were the protagonist.

Brain-scanning research published in 2009 seems to confirm this. When a team led by Jeffrey Zacks of Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, ran functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans on people reading a story or watching a movie, they found that the same brain regions that are active in real-life situations fire up when a fictitious character encounters an equivalent situation.

 And furthermore, our brains like it:

Stories can also manipulate how you feel, as anyone who has watched a horror movie or read a Charles Dickens novel will confirm. But what makes us empathise so strongly with fictional characters? Paul Zak from Claremont Graduate University, California, thinks the key is oxytocin, a hormone produced during feel-good encounters such as breastfeeding and sex.

Taking this idea a step further, Read Montague of Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg and William Casebeer of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Virginia, have started using fMRI to see what happens in the brain’s reward centres when people listen to a story. These are the areas that normally respond to pleasurable experiences such as sex, food and drugs. They are also associated with addiction. “I would be shocked if narrative didn’t engage the same kind of circuitry,” says Montague. That would certainly help explain why stories can be so compelling. “If I were a betting man or woman, I would say that certain types of stories might be addictive and, neurobiologically speaking, not that different from taking a tiny hit of cocaine,” says Casebeer.

So now we’re beginning to understand the power of stories: Our brains are set up to confabulate, we engage naturally in storytelling, and we can apparently get hooked on good stories.  But take a look at where some scientists are going with this:

Understanding the mechanisms by which stories affect us can be put to practical use. Hasson has coined the term neurocinematics to describe its application to movie-making. His work reveals how some directors’ styles are particularly effective at synchronising the neural activity among members of the audience. “Hitchcock is the best example I have so far,” he says. “He was considered an expert of really manipulating the audience and turning them on and off as he pleased,” Hasson notes, and this shows up in the scans of people watching his films. Perhaps future directors could use these insights to control an audience’s experience. Hasson’s team has investigated how the order in which different scenes appear affects neural responses to a movie – which could help editors create either more enigmatic or more instantly comprehensible storylines, as required.

Human history is full of examples of the motivating power of a shared narrative – be it national, religious or focused on some other ideal – and Casebeer wants to investigate the possible military and political applications of a deeper understanding of this kind of storytelling. “One of my interests is in understanding how we can design institutions that more effectively promote moral judgement and development,” he says. He believes, for example, that the right stories could help military academies produce officers who are more willing to exercise moral courage.

Casebeer notes that a compelling narrative can seal the resolve of a suicide bomber, and suggests that developing “counter-narrative strategies” could help deter such attackers. “It might be that understanding the neurobiology of a story can give us new insights into how we prevent radicalisation and how we prevent people from becoming entrenched in the grip of a narrative that makes it more likely that they would want to intentionally cause harm to others,” he says.

At this point I’m seeing the ghosts of Watson and Skinner, the behaviorists, and their grand program, not just to understand human behavior, but to control it.  I also see the ghost of Plato and his “Noble Lie.” And the ghost of every parent in the world who has ever told the story of “Little Red Riding Hood.” The fact that we’re story-telling animals (a term coined by Alasdair MacIntyre) also implies that we’re story-consuming animals, and as such we’re vulnerable to well-told manipulative stories. So this is where we need Narrative Philosophy/Narrative Ethics, in addition to brain research and psychological statistics. Even though the article by Casebeer referred to in Marshall’s piece is from 2005, reflecting the urgency of the post-9/11 years (which may of course feel new and fresh with every new terrorist act), the core concept of using stories to change the world remains the same—equally promising, and equally dangerous. Because what Casebeer is suggesting may sound, and be,  benign and downright useful in a new century with an ongoing struggle against terrorism (regardless of changing administrations’ different nomenclature): telling stories to counteract the narratives of fanaticism that can lead to radicalization and mass-murder. Science-Fiction has engaged in precisely such narratives for a couple of decades. But we cannot engage in such a practice without first having analyzed the ethical implications of narratives being deliberately told to control the emotions of the audience. We already have a term for such narratives—-we call them propaganda. And in order to evaluate whether such an approach is justified we need to engage in an ethical analysis of all aspects of storytelling, and raise our awareness of when we’re being entertained, and when we’re being manipulated/educated. One level doesn’t preclude the other, and we don’t have to vilify the manipulative/educational aspect, but we need to be aware of it, and the motivations of the manipulators. In other words, we need an Ethic of Narratives, not just Narrative Ethics, understanding ourselves as moral agents in the world through stories. 

And we haven’t even started talking about the stories embedded in commercials!



1. Paul J. Moloney - February 27, 2011

I am still trying to develop a perspective in regards to storytelling and philosophy. It is especially difficult if one adds to the equation that storytelling/narrative is the difference between analytical and continental modes of philosophy. I am thinking that there is a narrative behind all philosophy that may remain largely unspoken, such as the narrative behind analytical philosophy about which Dwight spoke in a previous comment of his on the subject.

I think also that though storytelling and narrative are similar that they are not exactly the same. Storytelling may have a wider application, if narrative includes verbal discourse to others. Still, no one tells a story without somehow verbally communicating it to someone, at least it would seem so. Even one’s life is a story told, so storytelling and the narrative may be more the same than different, or the narrative may be part of the storytelling. The terms seem to be more literary than philosophical, which is one of the difficulties concerning the topic. There does not seem to be an exact boundary between literature and philosophy. I doubt that any serious thinker would deny that Plato was a philosopher because he told the story of the Republic or the allegory of the cave.

Also, if every story has has a moral to it, and if philosophy has to do with morality, it would seem that stories are philosophical. Still, the morality or ethics of philosophy do not stand alone. In philosophy ethics have a relation to one’s theory of reality and one’s theory of epistemology. If one does not also present a theory of knowledge with their ethics, others can easily doubt that such a person really knows anything about ethics, the assumption being that if one does not know about knowledge they do not know about anything.

Also, philosophy can be much more concise than storytelling. The moral of a story may take a long story to convey that moral. In philosophy an argument can consist in two premises and a conclusion. Still, not every logical argument is philosophical, even though logic is a part of philosophy. Forensics, law and science have their logical arguments.

I have been arguing back and forth to myself on this subject since Nina first made a post on the topic. It is enough to give one a headache. Some of the points on the topic can be very incidental, such as the difference between narrative and storytelling, and if one spends too much time on incidentals they will never get anywhere. No matter how much one argues about incidentals they remain incidental.

The idea of the narrative, though, does seem to me to be an essential point concerning philosophy. It can explain things that philosophy does not. It can also explain why some people adopt this or that philosophy. The analytical school started out with, more or less, the assumption that philosophy had to do with language. To me that seemed to have nothing to do with philosophy. It took me many years to understand the analytical position. If one takes the analytical position to be a delayed reaction to Kant, it becomes more intelligible. Kant introduced an obscurity to philosophy that may never have been seen before. Kant came up with some definite conclusions but the reasoning with which he came up with those conclusions seems never to have been unraveled. Hegel seems to have thought he would be greater than Kant if he were more obscure than Kant. It is interesting to me that both Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer, themselves thinkers on the Continent, had no regard for Hegel. At first I thought Kierkegaard’s comments concerning Hegel might have been motivated by envy towards Hegel’s popularity. Kierkegaard gave up romance and status to write something of integrity, so I thought he may have been bitter at the success of Hegel. When I finally read Hegel for myself, I knew what Kierkegaard was talking about. Though Kierkegaard considered his writing to be literature rather than philosophy, he is responsible for another major strain of continental thinking, that is, existentialism.

The above is more personal opinion than anything else. It is definitely subject to modification and is far from conclusive and that is why I have hesitated to make any comments. Nina’s posts have been crucial in regards to questioning one’s assumptions on what philosophy is or is not.

2. Donald Johnson - May 11, 2011

In many ways I think narrative philosophy tells more about a person than Freudian psychology describing the Oedipus complex or similar. Analyzing ones life as a story tells us more about ourselves than earlier psychological theories of the human mind.

The fictional and factual aspects of a story are equally as important for the storyline. Why would part of the story be fictional? What reasons does the person have to manipulate the story? Might this tell us something more about the person instead of a wholly truthful tale?

Storytelling should be analyzed a bit more than it is because as the story unfolds more of us is revealed, for better and for worse. And as with any ideology the application of ethics will need to be implemented because there will always be ways to exploit methods of controlling or otherwise influencing the human mind.

3. angel bonilla - May 12, 2011

I do remember you showing us that video and i bet you are feeling great about those findings.

The fact that we are a story-telling culture doesn’t surprise me. i had a precious Philosophy class in which we learned that the act of telling story was used in Greek and Roman times at times to supress the people, the commoners. There has also been the use, as you mentioned of children fables which have a happy ending, in order for us as a society to learn that there is a meaning to life and that someday our prince/princess will come. Yet, I can’t imagine why people would get so attach to certain stories or why change a story so much. When comparing many of disney’s movie (the ugly ducklig and the little mermaid) to their written counterpart I was baffeled to learn how different they were. The Little Merdaid does not have a happy ending as the movie does. In almost evry movie I watch, there is always a happy ending which doesn’t seem real to me.

I get through my day at Mesa by telling stories of my previous day to my friends. Everyday is a new story and when we go to the weekend days we all come back tuesday morning telling each other what we did and how much fun we had, sometimes we even reference it to a certain TV show or movie to try and get a clear image in our story, to give it life I would say. Without the use of story telling I would probably be a very sad person, I assume, just because sometimes getting everything out feels liberating. There have been times where I try to make sense of why something happened to me and/or my family, but I end up caling it destiny because it seems easier to not make any sense of it or remember the sequence of events. I know that the use of story-telling is helpful in an everyday setting and even in the classroom to understand a topic better, for example the video on the man with two brains, sometimes I feel like are life is a story, a complete manuscript, and put into question the idea behind the act of story-telling.

4. Luis Vargas - May 12, 2011

I have seen the video of “the man with two brains” a few times in previous psychology classes as well as in your class. After watching this multiplie times it ocurred to me that one of the reasons that the man tells stories about what his brain is doing is beacuse it is some sort of defense mechanism used by him in order to appear to be somewhat in control of what is happening, by explaining how he thinks his “split” brain is thinking he seems to be attempting to show that he knows what is happening and feel better regarding his condition.

I believe that people tell stories sometimes to reveive the attention they desire and some, if not most people even exaggerate and like while telling stories to be more entertaining and receive extra attention for people.

Some good reasons about why we love to tell stories may also be that we want to leave our mark in someone and be remembered somehow as life goes on. If we were to not tell stories about ourselves how would people remember us? Most likely merely by what we have accomplished that they have witnessed, and not everyone is completely satisfied with what they have accomplished so far with their lives. Therefore they tell amazing stories about amazing adventures that other people would be impressed by.

5. thetempleofthem - August 29, 2011

In the following essay – we tore apart the “Narrative Essence” of the Axioms of Scientology – analysing the way in which the author of them had put together consensual notions in a deliberate order to tell a story and convince the reader of the validity of such Axioms. This is typical of our approach to the written word and other forms and may be of interest as regards the power of Narrative and the methods used to achieve it.

We, are, an occult organization – mainly because some open-mindedness in the occult and not reliance on the absolute power of science or religion means a mind more likely to embrace new notions rather than typically reject them. This in itself is one way through which change can be affected and Narrative take hold.


6. MVIMAEDIVM - August 30, 2011

Many of the basic premises we use to host our perception are in themselves elaborate stories, told so many times they simply become accepted and therefore, true – if not – collectively convenient. Time and Space are two such stories – Authority and State two more, Matter and Mind two others.

7. DAARP research ‘Narratives’ and ‘Myths’ » The TRuth brand - August 31, 2011

[…] to other posts, one on Verilliance, a blog about “Better Marketing Through Science,” and one from a professor of Narrative Philosophy who has been studying this phenomenon for 30 […]

8. False Flags and Story Wars, by Julie Beal | 2012: What's the 'real' truth? - May 22, 2014

[…] Ironically, “We also seem to use storytelling to reconcile our conscious and subconscious thoughts – as, for example, when we make choices based on subconscious reasoning and then invent fictions to justify and rationalise them.” (Source) […]

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