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Hardwired for Stories

4 October 2015

From The Digital Reader:

Pareidolia is the scientific term for our tendency to see faces in objects.

. . . .

Actually, pareidolia is more than that — it encompasses several phenomena, from seeing animals in cloud shapes to hearing ‘hidden messages’ on records played backwards. When presented with random or incomplete stimulus, our brains labor to find patterns or significance. So, we see faces in things that have no face.

:)

. . . .

Similarly, I think our brains are addicted to stories, and strain mightily to find a narrative even when presented with random (or contradicting) events. We want to identify a hero and a villain, we will find some side to root for, and we imagine that every course will have a beginning, a middle, and an end. There will be a conflict, a decisive outcome, and a happy ending (or a cathartic release after tragedy). We want to tell stories, and we’ll make them out of the flimsiest of figments, connecting dots and assigning roles as required — facts be damned.

We see this in journalism — and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Finding the story or through-line can help us make sense of new and unfamiliar information, and a well crafted narrative makes the end result more readable (or watchable, in the case of documentary film). Indeed, this is why one term used for journalistic output is story, and also why History is History. (actually the etymology there is reversed – we derived ‘story’ from Greek/Latin ‘historia’)

The problem comes with the constant, always-on, 24 hour news cycle of Cable TV, newswires, and internet feeds. We are presented with so much random stimulus, our brains are begging to see the story behind it all, even when there isn’t a ‘story’ per se.

Link to the rest at The Digital Reader

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11 Comments to “Hardwired for Stories”

  1. Each human life is a story – beginning, middle, end. So, naturally, we see reality through that frame.

  2. This may be a way the brain understands random information by association to a “story”

  3. Knowledge was passed down by stories even before there was a language, painting and pantomiming cause and effect taught kiddo not to eat the pretty flower unless he wanted to end up like his (dead) uncle.

    We live and learn what happened to others, both in real life and in make believe (“No want that apple — the witch poisoned them!” 😉 )

  4. It’s how we learn the most important of life’s lessons.

  5. You know my Cylon toaster? My husband recently made a piece of toast and the image that appeared was Jesus.
    I’m serious. And I’m Jewish. It was no Cylon.
    I love my Cylon toaster. I have a logical reason for seeing a face on my toast.

  6. Oh, oh. CylonNet.

    Dan

  7. I think storytelling is one of the ways we parse the world around us, and one of the best books of writing I’ve ever read was about how understanding neuroscience can help guide storytelling:

    http://www.amazon.com/Wired-Story-Writers-Science-Sentence/dp/1607742454

  8. An incident during my childhood changed the way I saw a work of art forever. During a bridge game my uncle made the comment “I feel sorry for that donkey.” Of course the rest of the adults were nonplussed. “What donkey?”

    He was staring into the living room where we had a reproduction of one of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. My uncle saw a donkey’s face in the shape of the flowers and felt the poor thing was trapped in the vase.

    I can’t look at that painting without seeing the donkey and thinking of my uncle.

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