How We Became So Smart
In his book, The Why of Things, Johns Hopkins psychiatrist, Peter Rabins states that “Causal narratives seek to knit together disparate observations, facts, and events into a coherent and inclusive whole that convincingly links later events to prior events.” He goes on to point to evidence that the ability to construct causal narratives has been physically evolved into our brains:
For me [Rabins], though, the most convincing evidence that the distinction [of the narrative method] has value and says something about the structure of knowledge [my italics] is the fact that the narrative approach is present in all cultures and used by all individuals, whereas the methods of science are a relatively recent invention.
Studies carried out by neuroscientists Roger Sperry and Michael Gazziniga offer further support for this claim. They examined patients who had previously undergone “split brain” surgery, that is, had the large fiber bundle that connects the two hemispheres or sides of their brain severed in an attempt to stop the spread of seizure discharges from one side to the other; they found evidence that there is a “center” in the brain, near or overlapping with the language area in the left hemisphere, that “makes” connections between disparate pieces of evidence. This strongly suggests that the human brain is constructed to carry out narrative reasoning and that the linking together of facts into a narrative causal web is innate.
Hominin language has always centrally attempted to achieve a “running” consensus about which of a limited number of narratives corresponded to the chaotic events that were happening all around them. They evolved the motivation-and-ability to link each passing event with the most likely next event on the basis of what just happened. Over time, chains of probable events accumulated into basic narratives, for example general strategies for hunting game under varying circumstances. Thus when a group identifies the narrative in which they are engaged, they can better anticipate and thus coordinate their responses to the next act in their real-time drama.
Narrative knowledge is most easily illustrated in team sporting events where mini-narratives are called plays. As a basketball team brings the ball up the court, they are all checking out the defensive moves on the basis of which they are collectively deciding what play they will run, which can then change on a dime. This is more explicit in football where much of the game consists of faking one play and running another.
Figuring out which play to run was what our ancestral species’ lives were all about for the last two million years. Narratives were lived back then, not told. And, based on the all the stories that we Homo sapiens have been able to concoct, there just aren’t all that many basic real-life narratives (Christopher Booker, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories–2006). So, similar to their hand ax industry which remained unchanged for 1.5 million years, these half dozen or so archetypal narratives spread widely and were maintained by our ancestors’ complete immersion into passionate collaboration about them across continents and through millennia.
An hysterical lecture on this topic by Kurt Vonnegut
p.s. Literary critic, Northrup Frye:
…the central structural principles [of] literature derive from myth…that give literature its communicating power across the centuries through all ideological changes. Such structural principles are certainly conditioned by social and historical factors and do not transcend them, but they retain a continuity of form that points to an identity of the literary organism distinct from all its adaptations to its social environment.
One Comment on “How We Became So Smart”
As a writer I love your take on narrative, of course. But I am impressed by the way you tease out the science with such apt and interesting examples from sports. Plays are mini narratives indeed.
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