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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!