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: www.celiareaves.com. I value every one of my followers, and I hope to see you over there!

Getting Lost: Planning a Changeling Game

Books (Changeling: The Lost and World of Darkness) with a scattering of 10-sided dice. Text: Something for Sunday; July 14, 2019; Getting LostI’m a gamer: tabletop roll-playing games, to be precise. I’ve written before about my love of Dungeons and Dragons (see here and here and here). D&D is the game I mostly play at home with my family, and it’s wonderful. But I’m a promiscuous gamer, and with my Friday night group we generally play a different game.

Changeling: The Lost is one of the games in the World of Darkness system (New World of Darkness, in case you were wondering). It’s the same basic idea as D&D, with each player taking on the role of a character interacting with other characters as they overcome challenges in a world of magic. There are some overt differences, in that Changeling takes place in our current, contemporary world (plus the magic), and uses only 10-sided dice, as shown in the image. However, the biggest difference is less obvious. Changeling games tend to emphasize role-playing and character interactions over fighting. This is the reason why, as much as I love D&D, I think I love Changeling just a little bit more.

Now that I’m retired, I’ve decided to run a Changeling game at home with the family. Planning this game has completely obsessed me for weeks now. I’ve got to understand the system more deeply than I do as a player, and I’ve got to figure out all those challenges. The players will need certain information in order to overcome the challenges, and I have to find ways for them to get it in the context of the game, as they play their characters, so they know what they must know in time to prevent disaster. The solution must be something they can figure out and implement, but it can’t be too simple or obvious. This is complex and frustrating and enormously fun. Here are just a few of the wild and crazy ideas I get to play with:

  • Exploring the Chinese system of five seasons/elements to understand the major plot challenge
  • Designing stalls in the bazaar of the bizarre known as a Goblin Market, like the one where the old crone sells buttons that give you specific moods, charging you one song you will then forget
  • Creating a companion for the characters I call a sootling: a little snarl of black string with eyes that talks and has information they need

In many ways, planning a game is much like writing a story. This is no new insight on my part. In fact, the person who plans and runs a game in Changeling is referred to as the Storyteller. The story is the key to what makes playing these games so compelling, and so much fun.

I’m a writer, with a novel currently in revision. So writing the story for a game should be the same, right? Well, no. When I write a novel, my reader goes through my words in sequence as I’ve written them down. Suppose the reader needs to know Fact A before Event B happens. It might take some skill to work Fact A into the story where it needs to be, but once I’ve done that then I can rest assured that the reader will find it there. With a game, though, my best-laid plans are completely at the mercy of decisions made by the players. They may not go where I expect them to, do the things I’ve planned for, taking the story somewhere I never thought of. In fact, this is probably going to happen at some point. Here’s an image that expresses this idea beautifully.

A bottle of Coke labeled "My planning," and a hand holding Mentos labeled "My players"If you don’t get it, then you don’t know what happens when you add Mentos to Coke (especially Diet Coke): You get an explosion of foam all over the place. Gif showing a bottle of Coke erupting in foam after Mentos are addedSo what I need to do is not just storytelling, it’s nonlinear storytelling. I can’t, and shouldn’t, force my players to do certain things in a certain sequence. They need to be able to make choices and have those choices influence what happens. But it’s still my job to make sure they have a good time, which means they face challenges that are intriguing and worthwhile, and find the tools they need to overcome them. It’s like writing a book, only more so.

One interesting result of the overlap between planning a game and writing a book is that the game has been absorbing all my creative energies for weeks. I haven’t made any progress on my book! In part this saddens me. However, there’s a voice in my head saying, “You’re having fun, being creative, making something that others will enjoy. What’s wrong with that?” I have to agree with this voice.

So, for now, my WIP is this game. I know this obsession will pass, as we get to actually playing it and then we finish it. Until then, though, the book will just have to wait its turn.

Do you play games?
What absorbs your creative energies?

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.

Here Be Dragons – Fantasy and Truth #photochallenge

This week’s photo challenge is to photograph a single subject from multiple angles. The subject I selected is a glass dragon sculpture that belongs to my daughter, who loves all things dragon-related. I had fun getting different views of this beautiful object, and also ruminating about dragons, fantasy, and truth, and how they apply in my writing and my reading. First, though, click the image to see the dragon from different angles. Continue reading

Just Getting Started: Learning From Some Early Works

GettingStartedWe all have to start somewhere, right?

I recently read three works that are first efforts, or first published works, by three different authors. All science fiction, because that’s me *grin*. The stories are:

  • Agent to the Stars (John Scalzi): a humorous story about aliens making first contact through a Hollywood agent. You know, as you do. Scalzi describes this as his “practice novel,” which he never expected to publish.
  • Golden Fleece (Robert J. Sawyer): a murder mystery aboard a spaceship aimed to explore a distant new world, told from the point of view of the ship’s artificial intelligence. This book won the Canadian Aurora Award for the best Science Fiction novel of 1991.
  • “A Restoration of Faith” (published in Side Jobs by Jim Butcher): the first story about Harry Dresden, a wizard in present-day Chicago who uses his abilities to fight supernatural evil. He wrote this story as part of a class in creative writing, but it wasn’t published until years later when pulling together several short stories about Dresden in Side Jobs, and Butcher agrees that it wasn’t really ready for publication.

First, let me acknowledge something right off the bat. These aren’t really first efforts. I know that at least two these authors had already been writing for a while, or at least learning about writing, in various ways. Scalzi had a previous career in journalism before turning to fiction. Butcher wrote a never-published high fantasy novel before blending his fantasy with noir. I admit to knowing nothing about Sawyer’s career before Golden Fleece, but I’d be willing to bet that there’s a history of learning before launching this award-winning effort. It’s like the old saying: it takes years of hard work to become an overnight sensation. Slogging away in the trenches of my academic writing and my “trunk novel” that’s never going to see the light of day is just part of the cost of doing business. Have I reached the level of the kind of early work I’m writing about here? Only time and a bunch of readers will tell.

Second, I have to acknowledge something else: These works are flawed. There’s good reason why Scalzi and Butcher didn’t expect their stories to be published, and even Sawyer’s award-winning novel has its weak moments. Let me say right off the bat that I enjoyed reading all these works. I am not bad-mouthing them of putting them down to say that they had problems. I can only aspire to reach the level of such problems! But it helps me to be aware of them, so that I can learn from them. Here’s a short summary of what I might have pointed out, if I were the editors of these books.

  • Agent to the Stars. There’s one real rookie mistake here, which is to have character names that are too similar. Two really major characters are named Miranda and Amanda. Another pair of names is Curt and Carl. Readers deserve better ways of telling people apart. My other complaint about the story is that the plot is held together by the most gossamer of threads. Even granting the essential silliness, of aliens who hire Hollywood agents to give them a more marketable image when they introduce themselves to the world, there are too many places where my disbelief fell with a thud. Howling coincidences. Aliens with improbable abilities that are still just humans in funny suits. And then, at the end, (sorry, spoiler here): I’m expected to believe that the Oscar winner for Best Motion Picture was never announced?! Sorry. Not going to happen.
  • Golden Fleece. This story has another basic mistake, one all science fiction authors struggle with: back story. It’s not handled as gracefully as it could be. There’s a spot where a character tells the all-knowing AI running the ship something that is well known to both of them, literally using the deadly phrase, “As you well know,…” I also had trouble swallowing how many issues were buried in one character’s past. This character was a survivor of child sexual abuse, discovered only as an adult that he had been adopted, and that he was the product of incest. I don’t see any relevance of any of this to the present-day story. It didn’t feel to me that it enriched the character at all; it just felt like it cluttered the story. Chekhov’s gun, failing to fire.
  • “A Restoration of Faith.” Here is another name issue, but it’s not confusing names, it’s a name that’s really just a label. The story is about Harry reclaiming his faith in himself and his calling as a wizard, and he rescues a little girl named Faith. Get it? Then there’s the fact that her name is revealed with a flourish, to the reader and to the character, near the end of the story, thumping on the message yet again. Harry was hired to find this little girl, and we’re supposed to believe he didn’t know her name? Or her age (he describes her as being about 8 or 9)? Her speech is also much to precocious for her age. When she sees Harry’s big duster she says it’s like something from the set of El Dorado. He’s tall and craggy, so she asks if he’s supposed to be Ichabod Crane of the Marlboro Man. At the end, after her harrowing experience nearly being eaten by a troll, a cop asks her if she’s okay and she says she’s “a little hungry, and I could use something to clean up these scrapes. But other than that, I’m quite well.” She is apparently 8 going on 45.

The third acknowledgement is that these authors know how to tell a story. That’s what makes these works worth reading now, with all their flaws, and has launched them into successful careers. Readers can get past all the flaws listed above if they care about these people and what’s happening to them.

  • Scalzi’s journeyman agent is smart, caring, and resourceful. He talks tough to people who are rude and heartless, but he is kind to a neighbor’s old dog. You have to like him. By extension, you like the people around him who are working to make things better for people, even clueless people, even inhuman people. This makes you care about how he’s going to solve his problems and be victorious in the end.
  • Sawyer’s central character is harder to fall in love with, being an artificially intelligent computer network, but he is still driven to do what he does in service of the greater good. This story is more about the mystery. It’s not a whodunit, but a whydunit; we know from the first pages that the computer committed the murders, but the full reason is not revealed until the last pages. Here we are caring about the whole human race.
  • Butcher’s wizard is wisecracking and flustered, but intent on living up to his own standards of right and wrong. Even when the darling child is at her most obnoxious, he cares about her well-being, to the point of risking his life for her. Again, you have to like him and want him to succeed. It’s a bit of a cheat to hinge the story on an endangered child–who can root against her?–but he mitigates that with her hostile attitude. Butcher successfully shifts the emphasis of the story from the child’s immediate survival to her long-term welfare.

So that’s what I learned from these three early stories.

  1. Keep working, keep writing. It’s a curve you have to climb, not a cliff.
  2. Everyone makes mistakes. As we get more experience we make fewer of them. (And it’s always SO much easier to see them in someone else’s work than in your own.)
  3. Story is king. If you have characters people can care about dealing with problems people can worry about, readers will forgive any number of mistakes.

Thanks to these three authors, and to all the other countless authors whose works have furnished my mind and my writer’s heart. We learn from each other; I’m learning from you.

Looking Back

LookingatMyBlog  Well, well – 50 posts!

WordPress reminded me as I submitted my last post that it was my 51st. Go me!

In honor of this milestone, I decided to do something I’ve been meaning to do for a while, which is set up categories for the messages I’m posting here, and then go back and categorize all my previous posts. (Active avoidance is a powerful force, and I must remember to use it only for Good.) So I did this, and I realized something —

Most of my posts are pointless.

In the first few weeks I did a lot of whining. Why can’t I write more? Why is it so hard? How many words did I write this week? Why didn’t I write more? To be honest, I probably wouldn’t read most of what I wrote here. At least 90% of those 50 posts were in the category WIP Progress, a topic that’s probably only of interest to me. They tell writers to write what they would like to read, and I’m going to apply that to my blog here as well.

So from now on, I’ll broaden my interests a little. I’ll write about what’s going on with me and in the world in general a little more. I’ll comment on books I’m reading and TV shows I’m watching (and maybe also movies, though I don’t watch as many movies). I’ll share things about my kids and my work. Not obsessively and not every day, but more than before. And less whining. I promise!

Moving Exposition

Walk&Talk  The Walk and Talk

I just experienced an interesting example of synchronicity: when things suddenly happen together so that they seem linked, but it’s really just coincidence. It feels kind of eerie when that happens, but no matter what they always say, coincidences do happen! My example started when I went to the recent meeting of R-SPEC, where the topic was Revealing Backstory without the Dreaded “Info Dump.”  An info-dump is when an author brings the story to a limping halt to spend a chunk of words telling the reader things the author thinks the reader needs to know but that aren’t actually happening right now, in story time. We talked about various ways to avoid this, including things like creating a flashback that is its own fully-rendered immediate story or giving it to a character in a drunken diatribe. Another technique we mentioned was the Walk and Talk, made famous by the TV show The West Wing. Much of the show centered around witty, intelligent dialogue between the various characters working in the administration of President Jed Bartlett (Martin Sheen). To avoid having lots of scenes with people just standing and talking, much of this dialogue was filmed as people walked through the halls of the White House. The message here is to have some kind of action going on, even if it’s just people walking, while delivering the exposition. I immediately thought of an early scene in my story where the main character (and the reader) absolutely has to get the beginnings of an explanation about what the hell just happened? One character tells the other, and this is the first plot point that launches the actual story. I started to think about what these characters can be doing besides just talking, and it has to be something that advances the plot in its own right.

Now we get to the synchronicity: Just a couple of days later, as I was thinking through this issue, I watched this week’s episode of CSI: Cyber (hey, I have to give something so techy a try, right?). What jumped out to me was a scene in which the FBI Deputy Director Sifter (Peter MacNicol) and Agent Ryan (Patricia Arquette) are telling each other things they obviously must already know but that have to be explained to the viewer, and they did so while walking from place to place. Now that I’m thinking about this idea, I will no doubt be seeing it everywhere!

So I will take it as a Sign from the Heavens: give those people something to do besides talking! And I’m already seeing it in my head. Another idea that will make things better.