On Defense of a Biological Link Between 
the Human Brain and the Narrative Form

Prologue 

This article explores the possible existence of a link between the way the human brain works and the narrative form. Compiling information from different sources and different professionals related to the field of neuroscience, I draw information from the biological definition of the narrative form, the origin of human language and its relation to storytelling, the processing of story within the human brain and the way how our spices minds creates the knowledge of self through narrative. My conclusion is that there is indisputable evidence for a link between mind and narrative and that narrative is an example of a nature-harnessed human cultural creation. I propose that this link should be further investigated and taken into account by new storytellers using different media and technology in offer today to serve as a vehicle for their stories.

The narratives of the world are numberless. Narrative is first and foremost a prodigious variety of genres, themselves distributed amongst different substances – as though any material were fit to receive man’s stories. Able to be carried by articulated language, spoken or written, fixed or moving images, gestures, and the ordered mixture of all these substances; narrative is present in myth, legend, fable, tale, novella, epic, history, tragedy, drama, comedy, mime, painting (think of Carpaccio’s Saint Ursula), stained glass windows, cinema, comics, news item, conversation. Moreover, under this almost infinite diversity of forms, narrative is present in every age, in every place, in every society; it begins with the very history of mankind and there nowhere is nor has been a people without narrative. All classes, all human groups, have their narratives, enjoyment of which is very often shared by men with different, even opposing, cultural backgrounds. Caring nothing for the division between good and bad literature, narrative is international, transhistorical, transcultural: it is simply there, like life itself.

(BARTHES, 1966: 79)

Introduction

Narrative is everywhere in our lives and it seems to follow a set of very precise principles. Robert McKee (2010: 3) states the difference between rules and principles ‹‹A rule says, “You must do it this way.” A principle says, “This works … and has through all remembered time.” The difference is crucial.›› According to McKee – considered by many as the master of screenwriting – all narratives are about eternal, universal forms, not formulas; and ever since Aristotle wrote The Poetics, the ‘secrets’ for stories have been known, at everybody’s reach.

In this article I will defend that the narrative form, used for so long in a great number of different media – from theater to television, from literature to digital storytelling – is based on our common human biology, i.e., the narrative form is a reflection of how the human brain works and it is universal to all individuals of our species, regardless of culture.

There have been several works published about the narrative form, how it works and how to produce it. Several authors, from different backgrounds, have been discussing it for some time now. It is common knowledge that the narrative form is present in all human cultures and that it is a unique feature of human communication. Michael Tomasello (2008: 290) defends that it is through narrative that individuals can build bonding mechanisms that will expand their communicative opportunities, thus enhancing their chances of social acceptance. As we know, being part of a group with common ground between individuals is one of the most important features for human survival and evolution. Mark Turner (1996: 4) defends that narrative and stories are the fundamental instrument of thought, upon which human rational capacities depend. With the help of these and other authors, I will present my theory.

It is broadly defended that some aspects of our culture have been developed in ways that use the maximum benefits from our innate brain’s ability. This evolutionary aspect of human culture is usually called nature-harnessing and what the concept means is ‹‹mimicking nature so as to harness evolutionarily ancient brain mechanisms for a new purpose›› (CHANGIZI, 2011: 180). Changizi, offers an example for this concept, defending that ‹‹Language and music, on the one hand, and the human brain, on the other, are designed to fit one another›› (2011: 136); or that ‹‹the visual system couldn’t be harnessed for reading unless culture developed writing to fit the requirements of the visual system. We didn’t evolve to read, but culture has gone out of its way to create the illusion that we did›› (CHANGIZI, 2009: 2754). It is my belief that we have developed the narrative form, for our storytelling across different media, with nature-harnessing. Through out this article, as we learn about the birth and the evolution of language, we’ll find much evidence for nature-harnessing.

Explaining narrative

With narrative or story being such a universal facet of humanity, it might look strange that we cannot easily recognize its usage throughout our life. ‹‹We almost never notice the activity of vision or think of vision as an activity, but if we do, we must recognize that the activity of vision is constant and more important than anything we may happen to see. Story as a mental activity is similarly constant yet unnoticed, and more important than any particular story›› (TURNER, 1996: 13). Like vision, storytelling is a constant in our lives but it goes without notice, if not for those moments where we are using it in a conscious way, like telling a story to a friend. But, if we force ourselves to consciously take notice of storytelling within our daily life, we start to find it all around us and being used by everyone at every aspect of our existence.

For humans, narrative serves as a information sharing medium between individuals within a group. Narrative is used to share information in a way that is both useful and easy to understand, relate and memorize. The way all cultures build stories using the narrative form can be explained because of this form’s ‹‹excellence at a particular way of organizing events into an intelligible whole›› (VELLEMAN, 2003: 1). Understanding information is a vital aspect for human life. Storytelling and understanding are mostly the same thing, according to Roger Schank (1990: 24). He adds (1990: 24) that the way we understand things is through the comprehension of new facts faced with previous ones, stored in our brains. Velleman concludes that ‹‹ The most memorable experiences, according to Schank, are the ones that we have stored in the form of stories›› (2003: 7).

As written before, the ‘secret’ for story is a long known one. Aristotle states that what makes a narrative work is its plot (muthos), in which one event is followed by another, within a line that is ruled either by necessity or probability. Aristotle tells us that plot is divided in beginning, middle and end. If, as I argue, narrative is nature-harnessed then we should be able to find common ground between it and our biology. Velleman offers a theory that Aristotle analysis of plot is  related to human biology: ‹‹(…) because beginning, middle, and end must ultimately be defined in terms of the arousal and resolution of emotion›› (2003: 14). Thus, it is through the analysis of how human emotions are felt that we might find a link between the narrative form and our biology.

Human emotions follow a path that begins with its arousal, a sequence of symptoms (like a faster heart beating or sweaty hands) and then a resolution of the emotion, when the trigger for it no longer affect us. For example, imagine someone walking down a dark street, late at night. All of the sudden, a noise cracks behind her. The person feels a sudden rush of adrenaline, as she feels an arousal of fear. Her heart starts pumping hard, her breathing becomes faster as her muscles tighten, preparing her to face some unknown danger. This person looks back and spots a cat in a alley nearby. All of the tension in her body ceases. Fear fades away from her body and she might even smile a little because of her reaction to the false alarm and, thus, fear resolutes into a sense of security again.

The three states in the human feeling of emotions are very similar to the form defended by Aristotle narrative form and its more modern usages, where plot is divided in exposition, complication and resolution – just like the story I’ve used on the example above. Velleman defends that ‹‹(…) the earliest stories in our lives are about the vicissitudes of our emotions (…) the shape of those stories is determined, in the first instance, by the nature of human affect›› (2003: 12-13). Velleman adds, ‹‹Freudian theory is not needed to support the simple observation that human affect follows a cycle of provocation, complication, and resolution›› (2003: 12), concluding that ‹‹The cadence that makes for a story is that of the arousal and resolution of affect, a pattern that is biologically programmed. Hence we understand stories viscerally, with our bodies›› (2003: 13).

The birth of language

Having found a convincing link between narrative and human biology with the help of emotion; we should then be able to test this theory against the evolution of our species and, specially, the birth of language itself. For, if the narrative form is nature-harness, then we must be able to witness evidence of its existence in the origin of human language as we know it. Michael Tomasello (2008: 87) states that there are three motivations for evolved human communication: ‹‹Requesting: I want you to do something to help me (requesting help or information); Informing: I want you to know something because I think it will help or interest you (offering help including information); Sharing: I want you to feel something so that we can share attitudes/feelings together (sharing emotions or attitudes)›› [emphasis is mine].

These three motivations are the basis for the birth of language, gesture based, that made us evolve from apes into humans. The first one, requesting, is a motive that can also be found on most big apes and the difference for humans is that our requesting mostly based on mutual help, where ape’s is based on self interest commands. Informing and sharing are human-only motives for the development of language and relate deeply with humanity. As we’ve seen before, being part of a group of common ground based individuals is a vital feature for human survival and in order to achieve such a cooperative society, humans need to be able to give and take in a social balanced way. This human need placed a serious pressure on the birth of language.

 ‹‹ (…) more than just being like others, humans also want to be liked by others, and one way of cultivating affiliation and liking is by sharing emotions and attitudes about the world in various kinds of gossip, narrative, and expressive speech acts within the social group. (…) When we feel the same about some common experience, this makes us feel psychologically closer (…) Why do all people in all cultures tell stories in the first place? (…) we laid out an evolutionary rationale for people sharing information, emotions, and attitudes with others. Basically, such sharing is a way of expanding our common ground with others and so expanding our communicative opportunities, and, in the end, making us more like them and enhancing our chances of social acceptance (with conformity to the group playing a critical role in processes of cultural group selection). Telling narratives contributes to this process as only members of our group know our stories, and our shared evaluations of the characters and their actions as we tell these stories are an important bonding mechanism as well›› (TOMASELLO, 2008: 210, 290). 

Sharing emotions, among other aspects, as one of the basis for the birth of language relates us to the theory of the narrative form following the sequence on human emotional feeling. If the narrative form is a reflection of the way humans feel emotions and if, on the other hand, sharing emotions is one of the key motives for the birth of human language; then we can infer that early language needed to include in it some kind of narrative form. Furthermore, narratives played a crucial role in the building and maintenance of groups of individuals from an early stage of human evolution, on a time where just culture of such groups could not be the only justification for the existence of narrative communication. It is through narrative form and stories that group culture is achieved. Those groups that where the most effective in keeping common ground between individuals and, hence,  in establishing better cooperation within its society, presented its individuals with better chances of survival, thus perpetuating their genes, as opposed to the early humans that where in groups with less effective social bounds.
Natural evolution guaranteed that human groups with better social cohesion where a better fit for survival and that those groups where also the ones that had a better mastering of the narrative form.

The story brain

Having found evidence for a theory of the narrative form as a natural selector for evolution survival, we still need to better understand the way our brain works with story. Story or narrative relates to the way humans feel emotions and helps with the cohesion of groups. Stories are also particular helpful for the transmission of information in a intelligible form and in a way that is better for memorizing that same information. Now, I’ll present evidence to defend the theory that story is the basis for human thoughts, thus making any narrative we create truly nature-harnessed, since it is nothing more than a reflex of our brains.

‹‹Story is a basic principle of mind. Most of our experience, our knowledge, and our thinking is organized as stories. (…) Rational capacities depend upon it. It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, and of explaining. It is a literary capacity indispensable to human cognition generally. This is the first way in which the mind is essentially literary.›› (TURNER, 1996: v, 4)

To say that the mind is literary is to say that the human brain works through story or narrative. One of the most important features of the human brains is its ability to learn with the help of simulation, i.e., without the need to live an experience to learn from it. All humans have the power, when faced with a problem, to simulate various solutions inside the mind, assessing outcomes for each solution, without the effort or danger of having to perform, physically, any of those solutions. This skill is of tremendous help for rising an individuals chances of survival and it is presumable that humans who had this competence where better suited for evolution perpetuation of their genes.

The way human brains performs such a skill of simulating different realities is with the usage of parable:

‹‹ Parable serves as a laboratory where great things are condensed in a small space. To understand parable is to understand root capacities of the everyday mind, and conversely (…) Parable begins with narrative imagining – the understanding of a complex of objects, events, and actors as organized by our knowledge of story. It then combines story with projection: one story is projected onto another. The essence of parable is its intricate combining of two of our basic forms of knowledge – story and projection. This classic combination produces one of our keenest mental processes for constructing meaning. The evolution of the genre of parable is thus neither accidental nor exclusively literary: it follows inevitably from the nature of our conceptual systems. The motivations for parable are as strong as the motivations for color vision or sentence structure or the ability to hit a distant object with a stone›› (TURNER, 1996: 5).

Further more, parable – to keep on using this word as Turner uses it – is in the core of the way we think, we act and behave. Whenever we use our minds before taking any action, we are using a combination of story and projection: imagining us inside a story plot, as the main character and exploring the various outcomes of different actions. Like in a modern computer simulation game, we see ourselves as one avatar in a virtual set, performing within specific screenplay rules. Parable is, of course, also one of the simplest forms of literary narrative but, again, this is just another example of nature-harnessing, where some cultural artifact is produced to be well structured for our brains (CHANGIZI, 2011: 442).

Having stories as the main basis for the way our thoughts are performed in our minds also means that stories must have influenced the way we communicate with each other, through the usage of language. Michael Tomasello defends that human language began with gesture and not with vocals and that the last emerged as a solution for communication that was, by default, public and so relevant for gaining reputation, within the group, by she who shares valuable information (2008: 231). Mark Turner adds to this concept by defending that it is from parable that the structure for voice based language arises, since human vocal sounds didn’t had the structure that stories had: ‹‹Parable creates structure for voice by projecting structure from story›› (TURNER, 1996: 141). Turner adds that it is also from parable that grammar exists: ‹‹Story and grammar have similar structure because grammar comes from story through parable››. (TURNER, 1996: 145).

‹‹With story, projection, and their powerful combination in parable, we have a cognitive basis from which language can originate. The dynamic processes of parable are basic to the construction of meaning and the construction of language. Story precedes grammar. Projection precedes grammar. Parable precedes grammar. Language follows from these mental capacities as a consequence; it is their complex product. Language is the child of the literary mind››. (TURNER, 1996: 168)

It is possible then to present a theory for both language and story or narrative to be understood as nature-harness cultural artifacts. Of course that, when we try to evaluate what the structure of these rudimentary (in the light of our times) early forms of grammar, language and stories might have been, comparing to the complex cultural artifacts of modern days, one must understand that ‹‹Once grammatical structure is established by projection of narrative structure, it can be adapted to express vast ranges of conceptual structure beyond the structure that gave it rise›› (TURNER, 1996: 155).

The cultural evolution of language and it’s artifacts are a process that keeps advancing as humans find new ways of expressing themselves and find new media to do so. Nevertheless, all the stories that humans creates are based on the way human minds have been working since before the invention of language, using stories and projection to create parable. These three aspects of the human brain functioning ‹‹are universal, and if grammar arises through parable, which recruits from universal systems such as vision, then there is no need to resort to a special conjectural mental organ to provide universality of structure. (…)  parable alone, without genetic specialization, gives us what we need for the origin of language›› (TURNER, 1996: 163, 168), yet another evidence of nature-harnessing working with human brains

Our narrative selves

Further evidence for the narrative form, as advanced by Aristotle, to be nature-harness and a reflection of our literary minds arises by the way we define ourselves. Not only are we constantly producing narratives for communicating with each other, but also to help in the way we remember our past experiences and create our sense of self. All of us keep an ongoing dialogue inside our minds and that inner voice is very difficult, if not impossible, to mute. Therefore, we’re always producing story, either in speech or silently, with our selves. Regarding our brains, there is no difference in the areas activated to produce either speech or inner speech. Both outputs use the same areas of the human mind and the main difference is that with inner speech we just aren’t offering it for public consumption (BICKLE, 2003, 198).

When we analyze this human ongoing inner speech, we find out that there’s evidence for the building of the concept of self through the use of narrative. ‹‹The self, in the normative “self-representation” sense that has interested philosophers, is created and expressed by the narratives generated by constant activity in the brain’s language production and comprehension regions›› (BICKLE, 2003: 198). The neuroscientist Michel Gazzaniga researched about this inner speech back in the 70’s, when working with patients that had corpus callosum, or split-brain. He found about what he then called ‘the interpreter’: the inner voice, located on the left hemisphere of the brain – the side of the brain specialized for intelligent behavior, hypothesis formation and language – that had the capacity to interpret behaviors and emotional states – narrating those, since this is also the side of the brain that produces narrative. Located on the left hemisphere of the brain is also the area where speech is produced, interpreted and understood (BICKLE&KEATING, 2010).

What is very interesting about this discovery is that it uncovers more evidence for the existence of narrative or story inside our brains, as a biological essential feature of human thought. Again, all this evidence is closely related to human emotions , its communication and its interpretation – a recurrent ‘actor’ on all the previous stated points on this article. Furthermore, Gazzinga ‹‹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.›› (BICKLE&KEATING, 2010). What this means is that we have found evidence that each human creates his own idea of self, therefore, each human ‘is who she is’ because of the inner speech inside human brains and that this inner speech that makes us human is built with narrative form.

Bickle suggested that our ongoing inner voice may be produced in the language regions of our brain – regions where, according to Mark Turner, human parable is located –, whether for external or internal broadcast. Both types of speech are then interpreted and understood by the comprehension area of the brain, thus having as the result of all this activity, the narrative self (BICKLE&KEATING, 2010).

‹‹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 [the muthos of Aristotle and Velleman’s arousal, sequence and resolution of emotion], be it romantic love, heroic adventure or a sad tale of misfortune (…) 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.›› (BICKLE&KEATING, 2010).

Conclusion

In order to analyze the possibility for the thesis that the narrative form, as advocated by Aristotle and used with such success across time, is a reflection of how the human brain works and that it is universal to all individuals of our species, regardless of culture – thus, nature-harnessed –; I’ve looked at the very definition of narrative, from a biological point of view. Having found a relation between muthos and the way emotions are felt by humans, I’ve followed that clue until the birth of language, because for my theory proposition to work – since human thought precedes language – there should be evidence that language is influenced by narrative form, from its birth. As I’ve showed above, the human groups whose language was better able to use the narrative form, where also on a better stand to survive through natural evolution, since human groups with better social cohesion where better fit for collaboration between individuals.

Once I had established the connection for human biology and story, for human culture and narrative; I looked for a better understanding of the way the human brain works with story. What I’ve found is that it is through parable – a story based concept – that human minds created language and grammar. What this signifies is that story, projection and parable are all features of the mind before the creation of human language and, thus, all are biological creations of the brain. Finally, if the brain uses story as the fundamental instrument of thought, then all of us are a product of story and narrative; since each of us has a concept of self, in the normative “self-representation” philosophic sense. What I’ve found is that it is the inner voice of human brains, Gazzaniga’s ‘interpreter’, that builds the sense of self in each human and it does so by using the traditional muthos narrative form, that is created on the language area of human brains.

We are who we are, because we’re constantly telling inner stories to ourselves using plot, protagonist, antagonists, complications and resolutions, climaxes and cliff hangers – all tools of any storyteller working in narrative production.

Along the research for evidence of my theory, I’ve always looked for signals that all links between the human brain, human culture and narrative form where of natural origin. As we’ve seen in so many areas before, whenever we find a ‘natural’ relation between one human cultural creation and a universal ‘fit’ of this creation to humans, what is there to be found is that of a nature-harness starting point; that of mimicking nature for a better relation with the natural way human brains work. A side effect of this concept is that most universal human cultural creations are made as a reflection of the way human minds work – what this concept represents is that brains don’t have to evolute to accommodate new cultural creations, since those creations are but a mirror of the old brain way of working.

With this article I hope to have presented a starting point for a broader discussing about narrative and human nature. Several other forms of storytelling have arisen since Aristotle wrote The Poetics, from scientific writing to interactive digital storytelling in modern video games or different journalistic forms, like the inverted pyramid or explanatory narrative. It is my hope that this article presents enough evidence about the biological importance of the traditional narrative form as a vehicle of knowledge and information transmission. All modern storytellers, planning their stories across a myriad of different platforms and technologies, should have a particular care for the narrative form and try to find ways that different media platforms and technologies can be used to tell stories using the narrative form, instead of allowing each media platform or technology to impose new narrative forms on the stories to be told.

Bibliography

BARTHES, Roland (1966)
‹‹Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives››, in Stephen Heath (ed. and trans.), Image, Music, Text. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977, 79-124 pp. Originally published as Roland Barthes, ‘Introduction al’analyse structurale du recit’, Communications 8 (1966).

BICKLE, John (2003)
‹‹Empirical Evidence for a Narrative Concept of Self››, in Gary D. Fireman, Ted E. McVay, Jr., Owen J. Flanagan, Narrative and Consciousness: Literature, Psychology and the Brain. Nova Iorque: Oxford University Press; 195-208 pp.

BICKLE, John; KEATING, Sean (2010)
‹‹Storytelling 2.0: When New Narratives Meet Old Brains›› [online]. Available in <http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/culturelab/2010/11/storytelling-20-when-new-narratives-meet-old-brains.html&gt;, accessed on February 24, 2013.

CHANGIZI, Mark (2009)
The Vision Revolution: How the Latest Research Overturns Everything We Thought We Knew About Human Vision. Dallas: BenBella Books; 1-3450 pp. (ebook).

CHANGIZI, Mark (2011)
Harness: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man. Dallas: BenBella Books; 1-3708 pp. (ebook).

MCKEE, Robert (2010)
Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting. Nova Iorque: HarperCollins Publishers; 1-473 pp. (ebook)

SCHANK, Roger (1990)
Tell Me a Story: A New Look at Real and Artificial Memory. Nova Iorque: Scribner’s; 253pp.

TOMASELLO, Michael (2008)
Origins of Human Communication. Cambridge: MIT Press; xi-393 pp.

TURNER, Mark (1996)
The Literary Mind. Nova Iorque: Oxford University Press; v-187 pp.

VELLEMAN, J. David (2003)
‹‹Narrative Explanation››, in The Philosophical Review, Vol. 112, No. 1. Durham: Duke University Press; 1-25 pp.

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the Human Brain and the Narrative Form”
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  1. The Virtuoso says:

    […] *For a well-researched examination of the literature of narratives and the brain, see Pedro Monteiro’s post at Digital Distributions. […]



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