Cognition and storytelling

Apparently, there has been considerable excitement in the humanities and literature worlds concerning new discoveries in neurology and cognition. And while I have been thinking and reading along these lines for years in my own auto-didactic way, I’ve only recently stumbled upon the texts that specifically explore this cross-fertilization of the arts and sciences.

AWP featured a standing-room-only panel on the topic of Cognitive Science and Stories that alerted me to the work of Brian Boyd (more books for the to-read pile), for example; and just this past week, Annie Murphy Paul contributed an opinion essay titled “Your Brain on Fiction” to the New York Times Sunday Review. Oliver Sacks has, of course, worked along this territory for many years, mostly from the neurological viewpoint with research that suggests we consider the relationship of brain science to art. Leonard Shlain has written intriguing books on the subject as well; though he focuses on gender and visual/textual creativity in his earlier work (see The Alphabet vs. the Goddess), his more recent Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light takes on the “rational” brain (physics) and the world and work of art.

The science, which encompasses both ‘hard science’ such as neurology and social science such as psychology, uses fMRI brain imaging and other forms of feedback measurement to record the brain’s responses to imagery, metaphor, descriptive writing, emotionally-evocative literary passages, and other stimuli to gauge how the human brain takes in such stimuli and which regions of the brain ‘fire’ when encountering the materials.

Associations rule. Reading is associative.  The word “coffee,” as it turns out, engages the olfactory regions; so does the word “cinnamon.” Tactile word cues (velvet, sandy, rough) arouse sensory regions, notes Paul. We associate meaning with senses. Or perhaps senses evoke, in the human mind, associated meanings. This is one reason poetry engages its readers; poetry works via a series of different types of arousals by association–allusions to previously-known information, metaphorical associations by means of sensory-related responses, stimulation of brain regions by word-association, and also cultural or social association (contextual cues, which may also be physical). All of this means that the act of reading is an embodied behavior–we are actively encoding physical settings and sensations while we read!

Human brains fill in the gaps in memory and in event-series that may or may not be related. Some of these neurological studies suggest human brains seek patterns…and construct narratives. Hence, story-making may be something that evolved along with the human cortex while we learned that a growl in the bushes is likely to equal a hidden predator and that if we convey this information by narrative (or metaphor) it will be recalled more quickly by our listener. If the listener is offspring, and the lesson is remembered and used appropriately, the genes survive another generation. That scenario sounds pretty scientific/Darwinian; but to a writer or artist, the scenario is lush with the possibility of story-myth-legend-fiction-poem-art.

Storytelling facilitates sociality, claims Tim Horvath, who explained to the attendees at the AWP conference that sociality is the biologist’s “reciprocal altruism.” Because fiction meta-represents life, it simulates possible life scenarios that can help to foster understanding and offers a way to test out possible social reactions to behavior in a way that is low-risk for the reader. The reader can imagine, or play along, with the rebellious heroine and through this adaptive play (reading can be a form of play) learn how others around her might react if she were to try a similar form of rebellion. Indeed, Marilynne Robinson agrees that “The great virtue of the best fiction is to teach compassion.”

I look forward to learning more about the cognitive side of human narrative. I love it when science and the humanities discourse with one another.

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8 comments on “Cognition and storytelling

  1. Great post, Ann. When I was researching voice a few years back I wished some neuroscientist somewhere would test the difference in brain response between reading a poem aloud, hearing it read aloud by someone else, and reading silently. If you spot any work like that, let me know!

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    • I’ll check, Leslie. I think research has been done regarding reading aloud or being read to, and reading silently…but I don’t know if any of the work specifically was done using poetry.

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  2. […] touched on the topic of the cognitive need for narrative in a previous post, and on Boyd’s story-telling impulse research (here), and now–in light of reading the […]

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  3. […] briefly last year…and last year’s conference introduced me to Brian Boyd’s work on cognition and storytelling. So I am hopeful that this year’s programs and panels will prove equally […]

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  4. […] of them is narrative, which makes perfect sense to me–human beings are story-makers. In fact, all three approaches to introspection Brooks mentions find expression in poetry, […]

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  5. […] have tremendous value to human beings in ways we are still discovering; see my previous posts here, here, here, and here (among others). I keep coming across claims for the significance of story in […]

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  6. […] have tremendous value to human beings in ways we are still discovering; see my previous posts here, here, here, and here (among others). I keep coming across claims for the significance of story in […]

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  7. […] Maybe it is because I perceive connections between her ideas on the ontology of story-making and Boyd’s evolutionary premise for narrative, or between conscious mind and story-making arising from the […]

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