Thursday, November 25, 2010

We're hard-wired to turn our lives into stories

Nice article from New Scientist on the human need to construct a narrative reality. Their Culture Lab blog has been running a series on Storytelling 2.0, of which this is one of many posts.

John Bickle and Sean Keating, contributors


We're hard-wired to turn our lives into stories - how will we cope with the dizzying digital fictions of the future, ask John Bickle and Sean Keating

"We are our narratives" has become a popular slogan. "We" refers to our selves, in the full-blooded person-constituting sense. "Narratives" refers to the stories we tell about our selves and our exploits in settings as trivial as cocktail parties and as serious as intimate discussions with loved ones. We express some in speech. Others we tell silently to ourselves, in that constant little inner voice. The full collection of one's internal and external narratives generates the self we are intimately acquainted with. Our narrative selves continually unfold.

State-of-the-art neuro-imaging and cognitive neuropsychology both uphold the idea that we create our "selves" through narrative. Based on a half-century's research on "split-brain" patients, neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga argues that the human brain's left hemisphere is specialised for intelligent behaviour and hypothesis formation. It also possesses the unique capacity to interpret - that is, narrate - behaviours and emotional states initiated by either hemisphere. Not surprisingly, the left hemisphere is also the language hemisphere, with specialised cortical regions for producing, interpreting and understanding speech. It is also the hemisphere that produces narratives.

Gazzaniga also thinks that this left-hemisphere "interpreter" creates the unified feeling of an autobiographical, personal, unique self. "The interpreter sustains a running narrative of our actions, emotions, thoughts, and dreams. The interpreter is the glue that keeps our story unified, and creates our sense of being a coherent, rational agent. To our bag of individual instincts it brings theories about our lives. These narratives of our past behaviour seep into our awareness and give us an autobiography," he writes. The language areas of the left hemisphere are well placed to carry out these tasks. They draw on information in memory (amygdalo-hippocampal circuits, dorsolateral prefrontal cortices) and planning regions (orbitofrontal cortices). As neurologist Jeffrey Saver has shown, damage to these regions disrupts narration in a variety of ways, ranging from unbounded narration, in which a person generates narratives unconstrained by reality, to denarration, the inability to generate any narratives, external or internal.

How does Gazzaniga's interpreter produce a narrative self? In 2003, one of us (Bickle) suggested that our "little inner voice" is the key. The inner voice may be produced by ongoing activity in language regions of the left hemisphere, both when the products of that activity are broadcast via external speech and when they are silently expressed through inner speech.

One compelling study used PET imaging to watch what is going on in the brain during inner speech. As expected, this showed activity in the classic speech production area known as Broca's area. But also active was Wernicke's area, the brain region for language comprehension, suggesting that not only do the brain's speech areas produce silent inner speech, but that our inner voice is understood and interpreted by the comprehension areas. The result of all this activity, I suggested, is the narrative self.

Since then, much more neuro-imaging data has supported this idea. Sukhwinder Shergill, a psychiatrist at King's College London, has contributed mightily, investigating the neural bases of schizophrenia symptoms, including auditory hallucinations. By generating and monitoring inner speech in ingenious ways, his functional MRI studies consistently show activity in neural areas involved in speech production, comprehension and internal monitoring during silent inner speech. This fits nicely with Gazzaniga's idea about the left hemisphere interpreter's role in creating the autobiographical self.

If we create our selves through narratives, whether external or internal, they are traditional ones, with protagonists and antagonists and a prescribed relationship between narrators, characters and listeners. They have linear plots with a fixed past, a present built coherently on it, and a horizon of possibilities projected coherently into the future. Digital technologies, on the other hand, are producing narratives that stray from this classic structure. New communicative interfaces allow for novel narrative interactions and constructions. Multi-user domains (MUDs), massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), hypertext and cybertext all loosen traditional narrative structure. Digital narratives, in their extremes, are co-creations of the authors, users and media. Multiple entry points into continuously developing narratives are available, often for multiple co-constructors.

These recent developments seem to make possible limitless narratives lacking the defining features of the traditional structures. What kinds of selves will digital narratives generate? Multi-linear? Non-fixed? Collaborative? Would such products still be the selves we've come to know and love?

As heady as these implications seem, we should not get carried away. From a literary perspective, digital narrative's break with tradition will either be so radical that the products no longer count as narrative - and so no longer will be capable of generating narrative selves - or they will still incorporate basic narrative structure, perhaps attenuated, and continue to produce recognisable narrative selves.

Psychological considerations support this point. Narratives, and the selves we construct through them, convey our individual perspectives of "self-in-world". These perspectives include individuals' understanding of how cause and effect works, and so require a temporal ordering of salient events that can be communicated to others. We often convey causal networks that make up our lives in ways that conform to one of the almost universally understood narrative prototypes, be it romantic love, heroic adventure or a sad tale of misfortune. Unbounded digital narratives, unconstrained by familiar temporal, causal ordering, seem psychologically implausible as sources for enduring, communicating selves.

Finally, there's the neuro-evolutionary perspective. Gazzaniga suggests that the rise of the brain's left hemisphere interpreter provides the evolutionary advantage of continued reinforcement of a new capacity for relentlessly hypothesising about possible causal patterns, combined with an older, right hemisphere capacity to make probability-based decisions. As Gazzaniga puts it, "Once mutational events in the history of our species brought the interpreter into existence, there was no getting rid of it."

The ongoing narrative activities in left-hemisphere language production, comprehension and monitoring regions during external and internal speech are with us permanently. New digital narratives might provide novel inputs to the narrative construction of our brains' language regions; but they alone probably can't alter our narrative selves. It is likely, then, that digital narratives - while on the surface changing the face of literature - will in the end be built on the narratives we've always known.

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