Why we are addicted to narrative?

By | February 25, 2021

Guest post by Christopher Comer and Ashley Taggart

As human beings, it seems a given that we have an insatiable hunger for narrative in all its forms. Indeed, this is so much part of the background and accepted rhythm of daily life that it takes the extraordinary to cast it into relief. During the start of the Covid 19 lockdown, Netflix saw a sudden spike in subscriptions, adding nearly 16 million new viewers in the first quarter of 2020. Meanwhile, news sources were (and are) obsessively “doom-scrolled”, supplying, amongst the dire headlines and playout scenarios, the requisite smattering of hopeful, if tired metaphors: “light at the end of the tunnel”, “roadmaps to freedom”.

But the media also bore witness to a related, underlying fear, no less real. Could it be that not only our lives, but also our stories might end? Before bubbles and work-arounds for film and tv production, a growing groundswell of voices could be heard, of those who feared their regular “fix” of soap-operas, on-demand drama or new movies would suddenly dry up.  The latest Bond was put on ice. As if in answer, virtual book-clubs and audiobooks took off, a good internet connection became a necessity like never before, and in many neighbourhoods tubs of paperbacks appeared bearing hastily-scrawled notes telling us to help ourselves.

There are practical reasons for such heightened narrative cravings right now. More time to fill, the need to find out what’s happening, social isolation and so on. But behind all this lie two opposed drives. The urge for immersion in a fictional world, inner voyaging, escapism, and the urge to confront the world at large – engage with the source of threat. These drives are evident in most of us to a greater or lesser degree, often alternating within one person, from one moment to the next.  We want to be taken out of ourselves even as we want to know where we stand.

Narrative appears to answer both these fundamental drives, and it is perhaps only in “strange times” that we might start to notice our reliance on this daily preoccupation which dominates much of our waking, and some of our sleeping hours. From government briefings to quirky “human interest” stories and double-blind Pub Med studies, narrative in all its multifarious forms is what we resort to, promising in various measure, consolation and comprehension. But we rarely ask why. Why we are addicted to narrative in the first place. Why our minds work this way.

Our interest in writing Brain, Mind and the Narrative Imagination began with this very question: how do stories, and story structures, as spoken or written, have an impact on us, and what can science, in particular today’s neuroscience, tell us about this process?

As we know, for a very long time the arts and sciences have been viewed and pursued as “two cultures” with little common ground between them, and radically incompatible aims, methods, and criteria. But this “cold war” is breaking down. A dialogue, if not quite détente has broken out.

For anyone interested in narrative, we live in promising times. Our increasing grasp of what goes on in the brain turns out to be not only relevant to the experience of narrative, but is now taken seriously in fiction and commentaries by those who produce it – novelists and dramatists, screenwriters, critics and storytellers of every genre – a sure sign that, at the very least “something is afoot.”

An opportune moment perhaps, for someone from the humanities, working alongside a neuroscientist to provide a snap-shot of the current state of play between the narrative arts and brain science. This feeling (for it was little more than that) really took flight on the day the two of us, with our very different backgrounds, were faced with a diagram inspired by the human cortex, showing the neural steps that occur when we comprehend a piece of literature. It was remarkable not only for it’s accuracy, but because it wasn’t unearthed in some scientific journal, but rather in the work of a leading literary critic, I.A Richards, who published it as long ago as 1924.

And there it was – a ‘cortical map’ of what happens when we read. It began for us a journey which, did we but know it, would lead us into the narrative nature of the self, of our emotional lives, the intricacies of point-of-view and the limitations of introspection, and the paradox of storytellers narrating their own version of the end of narrative. And Richards? His astounding model was so far ahead of his time, that it has taken almost 100 years to appreciate its audacious brilliance.

Christopher Comer is Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Montana, USA.

Ashley Taggart is Lecturer in the School of English Drama and Film at University College Dublin, Ireland.

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