Your Mind on Story
Fiction is not defective empirical description, but a species of simulation; just as computer simulation has augmented theories of language, perception, problem-solving, and connectionist learning, so fiction as simulation illuminates the problematics of human action and emotions.
Why Fiction May Be Twice as True as Fact
How Do We Understand Stories?
When we hear or read a story, our minds actively start recognizing words, parsing sentences, accessing our memory for all possible meanings of each word (semantic memory), understanding the meaning of the word (semantic comprehension), generating all possible associations we might have to what we are hearing/reading, making inferences regarding character intentions, interpreting the intentions of the teller, deciding on the overall meaning, eliminating extraneous information, and more.
The brain processes required for understanding story have been separated into three broad categories: (1) memory encoding and retrieval, (2) integration, and (3) elaboration or simulation. Memory is required to achieve an overall sense of coherence for a story, at least in part by allowing us to track the relations between near and distant clauses within that story. The same neurons associated with hearing a story continue to be active for a time after the story ends, supporting the idea that we hold the story in working memory. The frontal lobe is the brain region that best performs this function (Rolls 2000). Neuroimaging studies coupled with studies of brain-damaged people help us better localize the parts of the brain necessary for a given function (Cabeza & Nyberg 2000).
Retrieving personal memories that occur as associations to a story is important. These memories tend to be more actively self-oriented when elicited by what we consider to be fiction as compared to what we consider to be news (Larsen & Seilman 1988).
Why Do We Need to Understand Stories?
Human experience is embedded in stories, which we understand and produce through our brains (Mar 2008). We are insatiable consumers of stories. We find the personal stories of others absolutely compelling, whether as anecdotes or gossip, and spend considerable time engaged with novels, plays, films, and television shows. Our affinity for story emerges at a very young age, when we develop deep and long-lasting emotional attachments to the storybooks and movies that surround us. These fictional stories are not frivolous; stories have the power to change our beliefs about the world, whether or not they “really” happened. They do “really happen” in the telling. Readers’ attitudes shift to become more congruent with the ideas expressed in a narrative after exposure to fiction (Prentice, Gerrig & Bailis 1997; Strange & Leung 1999; Wheeler, Green & Brock 1999).
British neuroscientist Mark Turner situates the roots of human mental functioning in story. The way we think is based upon story devices, including metaphor and parable. “We organize our experience and our memory of human happenings mainly in the form of narrative.” We even create stories to explain the unusual experiences we have in states of psychosis, which then become delusions. We need to understand story, because story is what we use to explain our world. Story is what we use to create identity. Story lies behind our beliefs about the world.
There is no single way to understand a story. When we hear a story we look for the many possible beliefs inherent in that story. We find these beliefs by sorting through the beliefs we already have. We are not as concerned with what we are hearing as we are with finding what we already know that is relevant. Picture it this way: We have a list of beliefs, indexed by type of experience and meaning. When a new story appears, we attempt to find a belief that relates to it. When we do, we find a story attached to that belief and compare the story in memory to the one being processed. Our understanding of the new story is a function of the old story. Once we find a belief and connected story, we need do no further processing; the search for other beliefs is co-opted. We rarely look to understand a story in more than one way. The mind does not easily pursue multiple paths.
Telling Stories Back Implies Understanding
We tell stories for many reasons, one of which is to indicate to our listener that we have understood what we have heard. Our only choice for assessing how well we have been understood as storytellers may be to compare the story that occurs in response to the story we told.
We are always looking for stories to tell back to show that we have understood. When we find them, processing stops, and we wait to tell our story. We only incorporate what we have heard into memory when we feel that our own stories are inadequate in some way, for example, if our story is missing a piece. Such pieces can be supplied by other people’s stories. We may find a story inadequate when we use it to exemplify a belief that we are not quite sure we hold. We are willing to consider new stories as evidence for or against those beliefs and, therefore, to record and to remember better the stories of others.
The Paradox of Understanding
The odd paradox to all this is that we are less likely to learn directly from someone else’s story than we are to modify our own memories to incorporate aspects of those stories we are hearing. When we hear a story, we are reminded of our own similar stories. The story we heard is recalled in terms of the story of which we were reminded. Thus, we rarely recall the stories of others easily. Generally, other people’s stories don’t have the richness of detail and emotional impact that allows them to be stored in multiple ways in our memories. They do, however, provide enough details and emotions to allow them to be more easily stored than if the teller had simply told us his belief.