Brain Stories: Storytelling and Human Consciousness

An image of a reconstructed human skull. Text: Something for Sunday; November 10, 2019; Brain StoriesAs I work on editing one novel and beginning the planning of another, I’ve been reading books about craft. I recently started Story Genius by Lisa Cron, and so far it’s fabulous. I will definitely be working through her process for both stories, and have no doubt that they will be better for it. I’m not surprised: I mentioned her before, with respect to her first book, Wired for Story and how much I loved it. She has a TEDx talk about the importance of story that writers may find valuable:

One of her major points is that our brains are wired to be caught up in stories. When a story is working right, it delivers to the reader a hit of dopamine, a neurochemical related pleasure and addiction. She points out that every human society ever has used story for teaching and building community. Writers can apply this understanding to construct stories that will draw readers in and keep them engaged until the last page. I completely agree with her on this.

Another part of her argument is that the reason stories work this way is that we use stories to develop our understanding of the world, allowing us to develop the responses that will allow us to survive and thrive. Early humans who didn’t pay attention to story, she says, didn’t learn how to be effective in the world and died out. That little pulse of dopamine is there specifically to push us into paying attention to stories so we can learn the lessons they teach us. She may be right about this, but there’s another way of thinking about stories and the human mind that might also be involved. To get there, we have to take a side trip into cognitive psychology (my favorite thing, along with writing).

Cognitive Psychology Digression

We humans possess a conscious awareness of ourselves that not many animals have. That is, we not only know what’s happening around us, but we can reflect on ourselves as something that knows it. We can think back to our own past experiences, instead of simply reacting to what’s here. We have a sense of ourselves as entities with a past history, and can project ourselves into the future, imagining who we might be and how that might come about. Where this conscious awareness comes from and how it emerges from the physical activity of the brain is something cognitive psychologists think about a lot. It’s what philosopher David Chalmers called the “hard problem” of cognitive science. There has been much too much work on this hard problem for me to summarize it in any meaningful way, but here are a couple of accessible resources: a story in Psychology Today addressing the reason why the question is hard and why people are trying to solve it, and an article in Scientific American focusing on some brain regions that may be crucial to consciousness.

The theory I find most fascinating claims that consciousness evolved as a direct result of two related properties of human beings: our social nature, and our behavioral flexibility. (This is related to, though not exactly the same as, a theory of the social nature of consciousness developed by Michael Graziano: see this scholarly article and this more recent popular description.) Here’s how it works.
• Humans live in complex, interconnected social networks, even more than our primate relatives. It is essential to our survival that we are able to interact smoothly with lots of other humans. In order to do that, we need to understand the goals and motives of other people and predict how they will react to any number of situations, including unexpected or unusual ones. From their very first days, babies are focused on understanding and connecting with the people around them, as shown by their strong tendency to look at human faces and, as soon as they have any physical control at all, to respond appropriately to them.
• Humans have very few hard-wired reflexes. Babies are born with a handful fixed behaviors that are necessary for survival, such as suckling, but within weeks their behaviors start to show more flexibility. This is essential, because the way they will be expected to act will vary widely depending on the specific social group they are part of. A baby goose will have no choice but to follow the first moving object they see after hatching; there is almost no behavior humans engage in that they can’t consciously choose.

This is a cognitively demanding situation. People can act in ways that are not determined by their biology, but understanding and predicting how they will act is critical. How do we pull it off? We have to build within our minds little models of all the important people in our lives, keeping track of how they behave and making inferences about their thoughts and beliefs. We have powerful neural structures that evolved for that purpose, and this may be one major reason why we developed such big brains.

If you’ve got a complex brain structure just for the purpose of building little mental models of people, it makes sense for that model to be applied to the most important person in your world: You. In my brain, alongside all the ways I understand my family, friends, and co-workers, there’s something dedicated to understanding me. Keeping track of my past behavior, deducing my motives and goals, and predicting how I will react in future situations. In this theory, that model of me is the source of my conscious awareness.

Meanwhile, Back in the Story

Cron makes the argument that we enjoy stories because they serve real, tangible benefits that help us survive; in an evolutionary sense, they are adaptive. Let me emphasize that this may be completely true. However, there’s something else that may be true as well. Something that was adaptive at some point early in human evolution doesn’t necessarily benefit us today. Think about the drive to consume sweets and fats, which was a definite plus when eating wild plants and animals on the African savannah, but not so much in today’s fast-food world. Or, something that has a real, adaptive purpose may also have another effect that is purely accidental.

When we read a compelling story, we are pulled into someone else’s head. The author leads us to build mental models of the various characters, and their behavior plays out in a series of situations. When the story is well constructed the characters are interesting, their behavior complex but well motivated, and their responses satisfying. In other words, it triggers our ability to model people in a big way.

There is very good reason to believe that our ability to effectively model the people around us is a critical survival skill. As with many critical survival skills, our system has evolved to encourage us to engage in it. Giving us a hit of dopamine when we indulge in that skill is one way to do this. It means that when we get pulled into a story, it feels good.

I’m not suggesting that stories, like chocolate ice cream, are bad for us! But it might be that getting drawn into a story is not really related to survival at all. It could be just a side effect of our social modeling ability, which is definitely related to survival. Even so, it’s a fascinating and very enjoyable side effect. Stories are pleasurable, and indulging in them has essentially no down sides. I still intend to read as much as I can, and to create engaging stories others sink into. Cron’s book looks like a good way to learn how to do that.

ON ANOTHER NOTE: I’ve made a rather momentous decision. I will officially be switching my blog from this free WordPress location to my actual author website. For the rest of the year I will post all my blog entries (including this one) on both locations. Starting in January 2020, though, I’ll be posting only on the website. If you enjoy my content, please start following me at my site: I value every one of my followers, and I hope to see you over there!

Homo Fabulum

I’m a cognitive psychologist. I study and teach about the mental processes that allow our minds to receive, process, retain, and use information. One of the things we’ve learned is that, in an important sense, our mind is all about stories. We might even think of our species as Homo Fabulum: story man.

Michael Gazzinaga is one of the big names in cognitive science. He’s the neuroscientist who looked at the separate functions of the two hemispheres of the brain (work that has since been processed into the depressingly simplistic right brain/left brain dichotomy). He described an important function of the left brain as primarily telling ourselves a story. We process our experience by building a narrative in which things make sense. When our experience doesn’t follow some comprehensible logic, we confabulate, making up details or rearranging the information until it settles into a pattern we feel comfortable with (see a discussion of this idea here). He goes on to say, “One reason we may love fiction…is that it enables us to find our bearings in possible future realities, or to make better sense of our own past experiences. What stories give us, in the end, is reassurance.”

Other people have recognized the importance of story to the human condition. Decades ago, Patrick Shannon told us how important story is to becoming human.

Stories are how people make sense of themselves and their worlds. In young children’s spontaneous stories that they act out as they play, we can see how they believe people relate to one another, who they hope to become, and how they will behave. We can see adolescents play roles in their own and other people’s stories in order to figure out where they fit into their ever-expanding worlds. As adults, the true and imaginary stories we wish to tell and believe suggest what we value most in this world. In a real sense, stories make people.

People are pattern-detection machines. We are so good at this we find patterns even when they’re not there, which I’ve written about before. Our ability to build patterns is how we learn about the world. We are driven to find stories as strongly as any other pattern. When we find patterns, they allow us to predict what might happen and how we can respond to it. Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of civilization. It’s how humans have passed on the knowledge and wisdom we all need to survive. It was probably an important driver in human evolution, making it key to becoming what we are: Homo Fabulum.

What does this mean for storytellers, including writers? It means we need to construct stories that embody patterns. Fitting the pieces of a puzzle together gives the brain a little hit of feel-good chemicals as surely as kissing your baby or eating that indulgent dessert. This is a core idea in Lisa Cron’s wonderful book Wired for Story (you can see her TEDx talk on this topic here). That’s why it really doesn’t matter if your story is based on real events, if it doesn’t feel consistent. Real life doesn’t actually have to make sense, but a story does.

The other thing writers have to remember is that the story has to have tension, conflict, and important stakes. Every story worth telling is a story about danger: recognizing it, avoiding it, and responding to it. When we read about people who overcome danger, we are taking notes, whether we realize it or not. We’re programming our brains to overcome danger. When we read about people who are overcome by danger, in stories with tragic endings, we are taking notes about what not to do. We learn through stories.

I write stories in which characters literally die, but even the most peaceful domestic tale is about life and death. It may be the death of an important relationship, of a dearly-held belief, of one’s own sense of self, but death must be on the line. Kristen Lamb expressed it this way in her recent blog post:

All forms of dramatic writing balance on the fulcrum of problems. The more problems, the better. Small problems, big problems, complicated problems, imagined problems, ignored problems all make the human heart beat faster. Complication, quandaries, distress, doubt, obstacles and issues are all what make real life terrifying…and great stories captivating.

How can a writer accomplish this?

  • If your story idea starts with a character, ask yourself: What’s the worst thing that could happen to this person? How would they react? How could they fight back and emerge victorious, or fail to learn what they need to learn and die?
  • If your story idea starts with a problem to be overcome, ask yourself: Who is the worst person to have to face this problem? How will that person change in response to the problem to fight to victory, or not change and die?
  • If your story idea starts with a setting or situation, ask yourself: What’s the worst thing that could occur in this setting? Why would it be so terrible? How would it affect the people here, and how would they respond to either overcome it or be destroyed by it?

Dear Writer, that’s your charge. Go forth and make life really horrible for someone in your story. Because that’s what story is all about, and what makes us who we are: Homo Fabulum.