Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Storytelling Machine

It seems to have become an article of faith for the psycho crowd. They have all concluded that human beings are what Jonah Lehrer calls “storytelling machines.”

In Lehrer’s words: “Humans are storytelling machines. We don’t passively perceive the world – we tell stories about it, translating the helter-skelter of events into tidy narratives. This is often a helpful habit, helping us make sense of mistakes, consider counterfactuals and extract a sense of meaning from the randomness of life.”

Of course, if you become fixated on the past, it is not such a helpful habit.

Be that as it may, Lehrer seems to be talking the human mind. He is suggesting, as many psychologists and even David Brooks have opined, that our minds process information and form experience by crafting narratives.

Since everyone keeps saying it, we are prone to believe that it must be true. Unfortunately for us.

No one doubts that the human mind is capable of concocting stories. And no one doubts that sometimes we tell these stories.

But that is not all that the mind does. It is probably not the most important thing that the mind does. It is not even all that we do when we talk to other people.

In fact, storytelling is the enemy of conversation. If you tell stories you are entertaining your interlocutor, not interacting with him.

To me, and hopefully not just to me, it makes no sense to say that we can demonstrate scientifically that the human mind is a storytelling machine.

Science has, however, shown what happens when we get mired in storytelling, when we think that it is the center of our mental processing.

Lehrer reports that the more we tell stories about our experience, the more we tend to distort that experience.

Stories are the enemy of truth. They do not help us to remember what happened. They make it more difficult to remember correctly.

Psychologists have also discovered that we tend to change our stories to conform to the expectations of other people. If everyone around us thinks that the cow jumped over the moon, we are more likely to think it ourselves. Even if we know full well that it was a goat.

When it comes to a struggle between truth and conformity, we are less enamored of the truth than we are of our place with our group.

Why do stories distort our memories?

This is fairly easy to grasp. Most stories are fictions. They comprise myths, legends, and fables. Their truth does not depend on their correspondence to objective fact.

Stories are judged to be true if they are logically consistent and coherent in reference to the world that they are creating. No one believes that the truth of the Sherlock Holmes stories has anything to do with whether or not a man name Holmes once lived in a flat on Baker Street.

Lehrer explains this well. Clearly he is thinking of fictions in this passage: “But our love of stories comes with a serious side-effect: like all good narrators, we tend to forsake the facts when they interfere with the plot. We’re so addicted to the anecdote that we let the truth slip away until, eventually, those stories we tell again and again become exercises in pure fiction. Just the other day I learned that one of my cherished childhood tales – the time my older brother put hot peppers in my Chinese food while I was in the bathroom, thus scorching my young tongue – actually happened to my little sister. I’d stolen her trauma.”

What do stories systematically distort facts?

Stories are meant to entertain. A good story is designed to move the listener emotionally, not to connect him with reality. Apparently, stories are more entertaining, more coherent and consistent, if they are not required to follow reality.

Stories have a logic of their own. They follow their own rules of coherence, completeness, and consistency. They do not require a reality check.

This research leads to some interesting observations.

When psychotherapy tries to help patients to excavate past history and form it into a story, it is, we now know, distorting reality. It is not helping you to remember the past. It is helping you to entertain your therapist.
This means, as therapists have often observed, that patients craft their stories in order to make them conform to what their therapists want to hear.

Also, when you see the mind as a storytelling machine, you are redefining its purpose. You will see its higher goal to lie in its ability to draw you away from reality, to induce you to live within a fictional world that provides more satisfaction for not needing any real reference.

The storytelling machine is itself a fiction. The mind’s vocation does not lie in storytelling. It is a game-playing machine. For the human mind storytelling is an avocation.

Note the difference between a telling a story and making up a game plan. If you are planning for the next game, you plan does not have any intrinsic beauty. Nor does it have any intrinsic meaning.

If you want to know its value, you need to implement it in a game. The play confirms or denies its value.

We are more likely to put a plan into action, whether it is at a football game or in the game of life, because that is the only way to know whether or not it is meaningful. And we cannot know its truth value without trying it out.

Plans push you toward action. Stories pull you toward passion.

Anyway, you have a choice. You can wrap yourself up in a fictional version of your past, to the point where you detach fully from reality, or you can make a plan for conducting your life and then follow it.

It's the difference between therapy and coaching.

No comments: