Almost anyone will tell you that humans are "naturally" storytelling creatures, and I know what they mean: we talk, we compare stories about our lives, and even interpret our moment-to-moment experience according to our sense of the ongoing plot(s) we're living in. Recently, I encountered an article that provides some interesting neurological evidence for this claim--"The Neurology of Narrative," by Kay Young and Jeffrey Saver, published in the journal SubStance. The full text is worth checking out, but for the purposes of this discussion, the abstract will serve:
Narrative is the inescapable frame of human existence. Thinkers as diverse as Aristotle, Barthes, and Bruner have recognized the centrality of narrative in human cognition, but have scanted its neurobiologic underpinning. Recent advances in cognitive neuroscience suggest that a regionally distributed neural network mediates the creation of narrative in the human central nervous system. Fundamental network components include: 1) the amygdalo-hippocampal system, responsible for initial encoding of episodic and autobiographical memories, 2) the left peri-Sylvian region, where language is formulated, and 3) the frontal cortices and their subcortical connections, where individuals and entities are organized into real and fictional temporal narrative frames. We describe four types of dysnarrativia, states of narrative impairment experienced by individuals with discrete focal damage in different regions of this neural network subserving human self-narrative. Patients with these syndromes illustrate the inseparable connection between narrativity and personhood. Brain- injured individuals may lose their linguistic or visuospatial competencies and still be recognizably the same persons. Individuals who have lost the ability to construct narrative, however, have lost their selves."
I've always objected to the idea that narrative is natural, meaning that we're hard-wired for it, and that the history of our species was always going to result in our current way of processing experience through stories. Instead, I have thought of story as a result of some very specific historical and cultural developments--the mnemonic function of early bards in oral traditions, the later development of text and moveable type, theater, cinema, television, etc. I've often thought that if you could compare the degree and the nature of narrativity of people in different cultures, you'd discover that narrative is different for different peoples, and that it's not really natural at all, but is, rather, a key development in cultural and psychological history.
Now Young and Saver have identified areas of the brain that operate during storytelling activities. When they look at people who have damage to those parts of the brain, they see that those people are way worse off than people who’ve lost depth perception, or profound parts of their physical sense of their body in space. People who’ve lost the ability to use narrative are even worse off than people who’ve lost language itself. The final words of their abstract bear repeating—they’re incredibly powerful: “individuals who have lost the ability to construct narrative have lost their selves.”
I'll be the first to admit that this is challenging to my skepticism about narrative as natural, but it's not overwhelming. I believe all of what that abstract says, but I don’t believe it means that story is natural as in inevitably we were going to end up with stories as our central form of meaning. I believe, of course, that the brain has evolved along with our species—preferred behaviors are selected in cultures, and cultural preferences shape brain activity which in turn shapes the brain. So, as narrative is used as a mnemonic device to pass along the histories and mythologies of people, the brain follows suit and develops neural networks that reflect those human practices. Of course people who have lost narrative ability suffer profound impairment, because our cultural concept of self, our sense of identity, has come to be deeply enmeshed with narrative. Did it have to be that way? Was it inevitable that narrative as we know it would become the coin of the realm? I don’t necessarily think so.
Story was shaped by social purposes into what it is today—it’s not some kind of pure abstraction that appears among us out of the black box of nature.
After all, there are other forms of languaged knowing. I like to remember how mind-blowing Bruce Chatwin’s book Songlines was to me—how the aboriginal tribe he studies practices “dreamtime songs,” which guide their nomadic travels and, in their belief system, bring the world into existence. How different that is from, say, the story of the gospel and its dissemination over the last two millennia. The gospel is a story. Jesus--good Aristotelian--has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and the end is a new beginning! Which is exciting from a narrative point of view. In the dreamtime songs, the nomad lives in a relationship of dream and song to the land he travels. That sounds cool to me, but I’m not trying to romanticize it or make an evaluative comparison to the gospels. I’m just saying it sounds a lot different than what we’ve got as story. Their thousands of years of cultural evolution led them to a central practice of meaning-making, or of self-hood, that sounds significantly different than ours, enough so that I don’t think I believe that story, in the sense we know it, could really be said to be natural in some stable way. Maybe in an unstable way.
Here’s my point with this: if you’re willing to entertain the premise that narrative as we know it is not necessarily our inevitable condition—that it could’ve evolved differently, that there could be other ways of thinking about experience—then you might be willing to consider a next question: “what are the values associated with narrative?” What system of priorities and perspectives have we inherited as the story, and how do these inflect our knowledge of ourselves and our world?
For me, this is where poetry enters the picture. Poetry, more than most art forms, is capable of moving into, out of, through, around, and beyond narrative. When poetry works outside of narrative, is it unnatural? Of course not. It's modeling other modes of thought. Sometimes, when we encounter a poem that strikes us as very intelligent in an unusual way, we may think we are encountering a kind of evolution. After all, our species may be in need of some new ways of thinking.