Our Brains Tell Stories so We Can Live

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From Nautilis:

We are all storytellers; we make sense out of the world by telling stories. And science is a great source of stories. Not so, you might argue. Science is an objective collection and interpretation of data. I completely agree. At the level of the study of purely physical phenomena, science is the only reliable method for establishing the facts of the world.

But when we use data of the physical world to explain phenomena that cannot be reduced to physical facts, or when we extend incomplete data to draw general conclusions, we are telling stories. Knowing the atomic weight of carbon and oxygen cannot tell us what life is. There are no naked facts that completely explain why animals sacrifice themselves for the good of their kin, why we fall in love, the meaning and purpose of existence, or why we kill each other.

Science is not at fault. On the contrary, science can save us from false stories. It is an irreplaceable means of understanding our world. But despite the verities of science, many of our most important questions compel us to tell stories that venture beyond the facts. For all of the sophisticated methodologies in science, we have not moved beyond the story as the primary way that we make sense of our lives.

To see where science and story meet, let’s take a look at how story is created in the brain. Let’s begin with an utterly simple example of a story, offered by E. M. Forster in his classic book on writing, Aspects of the Novel: “The king died and then the queen died.” It is nearly impossible to read this juxtaposition of events without wondering why the queen died. Even with a minimum of description, the construction of the sentence makes us guess at a pattern. Why would the author mention both events in the same sentence if he didn’t mean to imply a causal relationship?

Once a relationship has been suggested, we feel obliged to come up with an explanation. This makes us turn to what we know, to our storehouse of facts. It is general knowledge that a spouse can die of grief. Did the queen then die of heartbreak? This possibility draws on the science of human behavior, which competes with other, more traditional narratives. A high school student who has been studying Hamlet, for instance, might read the story as a microsynopsis of the play.

. . . .

The pleasurable feeling that our explanation is the right one—ranging from a modest sense of familiarity to the powerful and sublime “a-ha!”—is meted out by the same reward system in the brain integral to drug, alcohol, and gambling addictions. The reward system extends from the limbic area of the brain, vital to the expression of emotion, to the prefrontal cortex, critical to executive thought. Though still imperfectly understood, it is generally thought that the reward system plays a central role in the promotion and reinforcement of learning. Key to the system, and found primarily within its brain cells, is dopamine, a neurotransmitter that carries and modulates signals among brain cells. Studies consistently show that feeling rewarded is accompanied by a rise in dopamine levels.

. . . .

Critical to understanding how stories spark the brain’s reward system is the theory known as pattern recognition—the brain’s way of piecing together a number of separate components of an image into a coherent picture. The first time you see a lion, for instance, you have to figure out what you’re seeing. At least 30 separate areas of the brain’s visual cortex pitch in, each processing an aspect of the overall image—from the detection of motion and edges, to the register of color and facial features. Collectively they form an overall image of a lion.

Each subsequent exposure to a lion enhances your neural circuitry; the connections among processing regions become more robust and efficient. (This theory, based on the research of Canadian psychologist Donald O. Hebb, a pioneer in studying how people learn, is often stated as “cells that fire together wire together.”) Soon, less input is necessary to recognize the lion. A fleeting glimpse of a partial picture is sufficient for recognition, which occurs via positive feedback from your reward system. Yes, you are assured by your brain, that is a lion.

. . . .

Science is in the business of making up stories called hypotheses and testing them, then trying its best to make up better ones. Thought-experiments can be compared to storytelling exercises using well-known characters. What would Sherlock Holmes do if he found a body suspended in a tree with a note strapped to its ankle? What would a light ray being bounced between two mirrors look like to an observer sitting on a train? Once done with their story, scientists go to the lab to test it; writers call editors to see if they will buy it.

People and science are like bread and butter. We are hardwired to need stories; science has storytelling buried deep in its nature. But there is also a problem. We can get our dopamine reward, and walk away with a story in hand, before science has finished testing it. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the brain, hungry for its pattern-matching dopamine reward, overlooks contradictory or conflicting information whenever possible. A fundamental prerequisite for pattern recognition is the ability to quickly distinguish between similar but not identical inputs. Not being able to pigeonhole an event or idea makes it much more difficult for the brain to label and store it as a discrete memory. Neat and tidy promotes learning; loose ends lead to the “yes, but” of indecision and inability to draw a precise conclusion.

Link to the rest at Nautilus

1 thought on “Our Brains Tell Stories so We Can Live”

  1. And some of us , to get the little voices out of our heads, tell our little stories to others … 😉

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