"Exhibiting You" - Story

Narrative, Memory, and the Brain

By: Sue Doherty
Submitted: 05/06/2009

The mind is more than an information processor storing and recalling information—as psychologist Jerome Bruner suggests: the mind is a “creator of meaning”. Beyond categorizing and predicting information, it relies heavily on narrative form to sequentially order information with action and detail. Bruner and lab colleagues at NYU call this mode of cognition: “interpretive”.

Our sense of self, others, and community depends on thoughtful interpretation. The text of our lives begins with sensory information that is full of spatial and temporal patterns. Our brain is designed to automatically use the data to predict outcomes while being fused with emotional input. As we mature we develop our capacity to interpret what we experience. As neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga (2008) suggests: “Feedback loops have been formed that allow rumination and inhibition and may be the basis for our self-awareness and consciousness.”

Mental feedback loops are highly agitated during dramatic events, enhancing declarative memory even in those with dementia. This effect on the brain occurs as peripheral stress hormones interact with the amygdala (the central processing point for emotional reactions and their memory). This little almond-shape mass of grey matter is primed to notice negative frightful events that may threaten our very survival. If a group of Alzheimer patients witnessed the cafeteria sway and plates fall during an earthquake, they could recall and narrate their view of the episode. Just doing so has therapeutic value—in the sharing of their stress, and the exercising of new memories formed.

Though not so dramatic or frightful, perhaps you recall schooldays when you had to memorize and present narrative poetry by Shakespeare or Wordsworth. Researchers have shown exercising the mind in this way helps us learn, to the point of staving off dementia. This method, long valued in the classroom for its effectiveness in imparting a sense of morals and aesthetics, is in decline.

Although rote memory is not much in favor anymore, learning by way of visual media is. If you add a visual component to storytelling you may activate what is known as our brain’s network of mirror neurons. They are called so because they respond to our own behaviors and emotions whether we engage in an action ourselves (narrowly getting out of the way of a moving car—swiftly moving with heart pounding and fear rising), or simply watching the same event happen to someone else (even in a movie).

Human language acquisition also depends on this mirror system. The mouth has its own set of mirror neurons, as does the hand, both are located in the frontal lobes. Notice how an infant keenly watches the mouth move when a person speaks, and watches non-verbal cues like gestures, to begin to understand word meaning. Since non-verbal expressions and gestures communicate meaning, their potential to create a narrative is implicit. Simply our presence among others is telling a story of who we are, for the attentive audience is always perceiving and ordering social interaction.

By nature we are very social creatures dependent on communicative interaction. Consider how laughing, yawning, and crying can elicit the same behavior in others.
Just the sound of these behaviors triggers the brain to send signals to the area associated with their facial movements. Such mimicry is hardwired. Now studies are finding that when people are directly exposed to happiness, it too acts as a contagion. Being happy also helps us remember certain episodes in our life —just like some smells or sounds. Memory function calls upon both brain hemispheres. Perhaps this is why, according to the January 2007 issue of Cognition, this automatic association may be brought to awareness with greater agility by simply recreating the body position you were in during the original episode.

No matter how we remember the past sometimes the stories we tell have us as the villain. The late psychotherapist, Michael White, developed a method called “narrative therapy”, which teaches patients to externalize problems in such situations. This is particularly useful for accounts of trauma. How we respond to troubling situations or their memories is critical to well-being. White also applied his narrative therapy in helping Aboriginal communities in New South Wales. Through storytelling tribesmen were able to adjust to and eventually accept dispossession and forced relocation from their homeland.

The technique of narrative therapy requires re-evaluating what happened by beginning from a more positive point of view as we re-author and re-member. The lifting of blame and shame unburdens anxiety, and allows us to accentuate our strengths and acknowledge supportive social relationships. From this more positive foundation of our life story new found possibilities emerge.

Most individual stories are narratives of community. The late anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, argued that: “Men’s most important claims to humanity are cast in the accents of group pride.” For five thousands years the nomadic Hmong, often faced with forced exile, have relied on oral histories and an ethos of working together to unite family and community. Today in the United States we find they have creatively enlarged their capacity to share their culture by the use of home videos. Through this vibrant means of narrative they maintain a strong (extended) family unit across national and international borders.

These ways to acquire self-esteem and self-efficacy can also occur at the larger level of society. For instance, through the song "We Shall Overcome" people spontaneously gathered with a united voice over a common cause. This song began with plantation slaves. In 1945, textile workers sang it on a picket line as a means to air their social protest. Eventually, it was echoed far and wide through the streets of the South during the Civil Rights Movement. The exhibition Voices of Civil Rights at The Library of Congress online documents events during this period by drawing from thousands of personal stories, oral histories, and photographs.

Today oral histories are becoming essential components of museum exhibits. They allow participants an opportunity to engage their social memory and impart their own individual testimony to important local events, people, and places. A willingness to share opens a dialogue between the past and present and between the private and the public. Such oral sources deepen our knowledge of the process of and profound need for oral histories as records of the past. It is a necessary approach to cross-cultural understanding and a complimentary component to historical research and scholarship.

Cultures and societies are not static or homogenous, nor reducible to essential qualities—such notions of cultural identity are too restrictive. We are compelled, then, to resist taking an event as a cultural text sufficient unto itself, rather, we must locate it in a specific time and place. It is “the ethnography of the particular’. By intervening in this way, we are forced to grapple with the interpretation of its meaning from an intervening vantage point that is, by its nature, ambivalent—for how can we know the whole story? In the end, there is no clear picture of cultural knowledge. There is a story of the participants, ideally by the participants, that demonstrates the hybrid quality of cultures. This is not to deny cultural differences—it is to give the act of enunciating differences to those closest to the specific empirical instances presented, it also solidifies the notion that there is only a mysterious unknowing of any established “true” cultural identity. Thus, as Homi K. Bhabha asserts: we “enter” into a space of “inter”-national culture marked by histories of the “people”.

The late philosopher, Richard Rorty, claimed that it is through sentimental stories (or a more inclusive history) that we can develop the necessary virtue of sympathy and thus “an increasing ability to see the similarities between ourselves and people very unlike us as outweighing the differences.” This concept rests upon our species unique capacity for education, as well as the flexible nature of our mind and character. It gives hope to humanity that the collective mind will foster ever more peace. As the late literary critic and ethicist Wayne Booth said, “the most important of all critical tasks is to participate in – and thus to reinforce – a critical culture, a vigorous conversation, that will nourish in return those who feed us with their narratives.”

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