Thursday, May 24, 2007

Narrative Psychology

In the past few days, I have stumbled upon several good articles on narrative psychology (this NYT article provides a good introduction), which seems to be an emergent field of research and therapy (there isn't even a Wikipedia entry yet). My sense is that it has grown out of script analysis, which has been a central tool in cognitive-behavioral therapies. But while script analysis tends to focus on individual behaviors -- how we internalize scripts about what will happen to us in specific situations, and how these scripts guide our behavior -- narrative therapy seems to look at the meta-narratives we tell ourselves about our lives and who we are.

I have several thoughts on this. The first is that this research/therapy needs to include our various subpersonalities as narrators. Each of our main subpersonalities will have a different narrative about our lives, what has happened to us, and why we are the people we have become.

The second thought is that we need to also look at the brain physiology of our narrative patterns. More and more we are learning that subjective states (cognition, emotion, beliefs) have objective correlates in brain structures and chemistry. For example, fMRI research is showing how different subjective states show up with different parts of the brain lighting up (I posted in today's speedlinking a new attempt to use fMRI scans as lie detectors).

We also know that various meditation states show distinct patterns in the brain, as well as depression, anxiety, and many others. It would be interesting to see how different an fMRI of a positive, self-affirming narrative looks when compared to an fMRI of negative, self-deprecating narrative. This research might point to specific brain structures involved in different qualities of narrative.

Finally, I think this is ripe territory for the humanities to join forces with psychology. Any therapist working with life narratives would benefit greatly from understanding the inner and outer structures of narrative as studied in literature (for example, think Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism). Further, it would help to understand how plot develops, how character develops, and what the elements of narrative reveal about the author, especially in autobiographical narrative (think confessional poetry or memoirs).

A very good article that does just this is Don Quixote and The Narrative Self over Philosophy Now.

The idea that our life is a story is by no means new. Thus the great bard Shakespeare said that life “...is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (Macbeth) However, it took philosophers some time to discover the philosophical import of this view of life. It was actually a German chap called William Schapp who first gave this age-old idea a philosophical twist. He maintained that we live our lives in a host of stories, which have connection with the stories of other people in various ways; so actually, our selves are nothing but cross-sections of stories. Our identities are created by a vast web of stories, as is our relationship with reality. We understand and identify things by placing them in the stories we tell about them: just like selves, things do not really exist outside of stories. We are caught in this narrative web because we cannot exist outside of it. There is a world-wide web of stories: the world is that web.

Unfortunately, the rest of the article only looks at two narrativist philosophers and does not really delve into the idea of a narrative psychology. Still, it presents an idea of how such a study might be valuable.

Another article, Psychology and history converge in book on the caring personality, looks at how the idea of the Redemptive Self plays a crucial role in American psychology.

As a research psychologist who has systematically collected and analyzed the life stories of hundreds of adults for two decades, Dan P. McAdams has long argued that people find meaning and purpose in their lives by formulating and telling their life stories.

In his latest book, “The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By,” the professor and fellow of the American Psychological Association focuses on the life stories of what he calls highly “generative” adults – women and men who score exceptionally high on psychological measures of social responsibility, productivity and caring for others.

Not only does he find that highly generative midlife adults experience greater psychological health than their less generative counterparts, McAdams discovers that they are far more likely to describe their lives as variations on a script he has dubbed the “redemptive self.” In that script, these highly caring individuals tell stories in which they transform negative life events or experiences into positive outcomes that give direction and meaning to their lives.

In a book that is part cutting edge psychology and part cultural history, McAdams – professor of education and social policy and of psychology at Northwestern — draws comparisons between the redemptive life stories of the “generative superstars” he has interviewed over 20 years and those of Americans from Ben Franklin to Oprah Winfrey.


The article (and the book) seems less about narrative psychology than it does about cultural myths, but I think it is instructive that the people he looks at as “generative superstars” all tell life stories in which they are not beaten by circumstances and struggles. Looking at these types of self-narratives could be useful in helping people rewrite their own scripts.

I once was in a self-help workshop where we were asked to spend a few minutes writing our life stories. After we had written the stories, the leader asked the group how many of us had written stories in which the main character (ourselves) were defeated by circumstances and obstacles. About half of us, including me, had written such narratives. She then asked us to rewrite the stories so that the protagonist sitting in that room has overcome those hardships in order to be sitting there that day.

I didn't gain any epiphany from that exercise at the time, but years later I began to see how personal narratives do indeed shape the way we view ourselves -- and the more self-reflective we are, the more those scripts can shape our self-image. I know people who tell their life stories as though they believe that everything that has happened to them is a result of their being bad people (often, these people were abused as children and have never had good therapy).

In my own life, I have somehow shifted, as a result of good therapy, to a narrative that allows me (the protagonist) to see all the events (the plot points) as useful learning experiences that have shaped me into the person I am now. I shifted from a victim narrative to a hero narrative. Rewriting our personal narratives so that we are the hero(ine) who overcomes hardships can be a useful tool in reshaping our self-perception.

This is from the NYT article mentioned above:

In analyzing the texts, the researchers found strong correlations between the content of people’s current lives and the stories they tell. Those with mood problems have many good memories, but these scenes are usually tainted by some dark detail. The pride of college graduation is spoiled when a friend makes a cutting remark. The wedding party was wonderful until the best man collapsed from drink. A note of disappointment seems to close each narrative phrase.

By contrast, so-called generative adults — those who score highly on tests measuring civic-mindedness, and who are likely to be energetic and involved — tend to see many of the events in their life in the reverse order, as linked by themes of redemption. They flunked sixth grade but met a wonderful counselor and made honor roll in seventh. They were laid low by divorce, only to meet a wonderful new partner. Often, too, they say they felt singled out from very early in life — protected, even as others nearby suffered.


And from later in the article:

At some level, talk therapy has always been an exercise in replaying and reinterpreting each person’s unique life story. Yet Mr. Adler found that in fact those former patients who scored highest on measures of well-being — who had recovered, by standard measures — told very similar tales about their experiences.

They described their problem, whether depression or an eating disorder, as coming on suddenly, as if out of nowhere. They characterized their difficulty as if it were an outside enemy, often giving it a name (the black dog, the walk of shame). And eventually they conquered it.

“The story is one of victorious battle: ‘I ended therapy because I could overcome this on my own,’ ” Mr. Adler said. Those in the study who scored lower on measures of psychological well-being were more likely to see their moods and behavior problems as a part of their own character, rather than as a villain to be defeated. To them, therapy was part of a continuing adaptation, not a decisive battle.

The findings suggest that psychotherapy, when it is effective, gives people who are feeling helpless a sense of their own power, in effect altering their life story even as they work to disarm their own demons, Mr. Adler said.

Mental resilience relies in part on exactly this kind of autobiographical storytelling, moment to moment, when navigating life’s stings and sorrows. To better understand how stories are built in real time, researchers have recently studied how people recall vivid scenes from recent memory. They find that one important factor is the perspective people take when they revisit the scene — whether in the first person, or in the third person, as if they were watching themselves in a movie.


From what I can tell, narrative psychology simply attempts to revise the stories people tell themselves, giving them a sense of agency in their lives. But understanding how these stories are constructed is crucial in being able to revise them.

Shifting the narrative from first person to third person, which amounts to developing an observer self, seems crucial in shifting the experience.

In a 2005 study reported in the journal Psychological Science, researchers at Columbia University measured how student participants reacted to a bad memory, whether an argument or failed exam, when it was recalled in the third person. They tested levels of conscious and unconscious hostility after the recollections, using both standard questionnaires and students’ essays. The investigators found that the third-person scenes were significantly less upsetting, compared with bad memories recalled in the first person.

“What our experiment showed is that this shift in perspective, having this distance from yourself, allows you to relive the experience and focus on why you’re feeling upset,” instead of being immersed in it, said Ethan Kross, the study’s lead author. The emotional content of the memory is still felt, he said, but its sting is blunted as the brain frames its meaning, as it builds the story.


This is an example, I believe, of how meditation can play a role in reframing our life stories. One of the great things about sustained meditation practice -- even just a few minutes a day -- is that we develop the ability to watch our thoughts and feelings rather than BE our thoughts and feelings. This would be a great tool in helping rewrite their life narratives in third person, and to deal with current issues from the distance of the observing self.

I can definitely see my PhD thesis focusing on this topic, especially with my post-grad degree in English. Making the topic more integral (including brain imaging studies, subpersonality theory, cultural narrative influence, and so on) could make this a cutting edge approach to therapy, especially when we consider the success people like Aaron T. Beck have had with cognitive therapy. Narrative psychology seems like the next step.


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