The Neuroscience Behind Strategic Narrative

When our stories are dysfunctional, we are dysfunctional

Several generations of increasingly advanced science now tell us that the insights of novelists and filmmakers have an empirical basis in our brain chemistry.  This should be a clarion call for every leader, because when our stories are dysfunctional, we are dysfunctional, both as individuals and in organizations.

The machine view of humans has become obsolete

The understanding that humans actively structure our reality in the form of stories goes against the Enlightenment era premise that people are rational machines who process reality as a kind of math problem.  Rational wo/man is someone who digests empirical facts and then analyzes them on the basis of an external principle.

Science now tells us that there is no such creature. Our brains aren’t transparent receptacles for objective facts, but complex filters  relentlessly interpreting information and transforming it  into a coherent story.   It  is the story we end up telling ourselves that drives our behavior.  We all have different processing filters, which is why the same facts mean different things to different people. Moreover, our minds are less attuned to the distinction between facts and fictions than they are to figuring out which accounts of an event are more or less persuasive.  In other words, we value coherence over facticity.

From Frog Brains to Humans: Interpreting our Surroundings

Scientific research has been building the case for half a century that we are all storytellers.  In the 1950s, an electrical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Jerry Lettvin, laid some of the groundwork with an influential article, “What the Frog’s Eye Tells the Frog’s Brain.” In his study of how frogs see, Lettvin showed that frogs’ neurons are optimized to see small objects in motion and not to see anything that is still. In other words, frogs interpret the objects around them in line with their priorities, which revolve largely around catching flies, a tasty dinner from a frog’s point of view.

Many years later, cognitive scientists began to frame this recognition in human terms. Like the lowly frog,  our brains also mediate information, organizing it in a way that makes sense to us.  Our tendencies are narrative:

  • We each select information that matters particularly to us from all of the noise around us
  • We put it into a temporal order in which one event follows another for a reason
  • When we don’t have enough external information to create a story, our mind helpfully steps in and supplies it, so that we experience reality as a coherent narrative

What cognitive psychologists learned from folk tales

The first social scientists who understood this phenomenon did so through their studies of folk tales. Folk tales are interesting because they are highly formulaic and also universal.

You do not need to know the specific details of a folk tale to know what is likely to happen in it.  If the boy loses the girl, we know the boy will get the girl later.  If the hero is thwarted in a task, we know that he will make another attempt and try harder.   Cognitive psychologists in the last half of the 20th century were interested in this rather amazing knowledge that we all seem to have.  How do we all seem to know what will happen next? Psychologists and anthropologists explained that cognitively, we hold in our minds two ways of viewing a story. One is as a series of  “parts” and the other is as a “whole” that goes from beginning to end.  We always already know the “whole” archetypal story, and because of that knowledge, we can fill in the blanks in parts where details aren’t supplied. As it turns out, we process reality in much the same way as we do folk tales.

Reality, like stories, is scripted

Jean Mandler, who is today Distinguished Research Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of California, explained in the 1980s that we process our everyday lives just as we do folk tales.  She explored daily ‘scripts,’ which for psychologists, are what drive routine activities, like driving to work or making breakfast. These activities are “scripted” so we perform them automatically without having to re-invent our routines every day.

Mandler observed through empirical studies in her laboratory that people make sense of daily routines in that same “whole  – part” structure that we bring to folk tales.  We automatically pour a cup of coffee because we know it is a part of the larger script of making breakfast. As with stories, we link our activities in a temporal and meaningful order.  When performing the script, ‘going to work,’ we would not try to pay for the bus before walking to the bus stop. If we did not have this resident narrative formula available to us, we would have to invent our habits anew every day by deriving what to do, and in what order in order to complete activities like eating breakfast and going to work.  So our implicit narrative understanding is a useful heuristic, like a program running silently in the background of our daily life, that helps us function more effectively.

You can already see how powerfully these insights explain a wide range of human responses to events.  It is as if we are all protagonists in an ongoing mystery novel, trying to gather as much information as we can to put together the right story. In situations where there is a chronic shortage of information, people develop conspiracy mindsets.  This happens in authoritarian states and in dysfunctional businesses where information flows are cut off. 

In diverse populations, there are likely to be many different ways that people experience the same facts on the ground.  This is true in multicultural societies, liberal democracies, and many workplaces.  This diversity of narrative can make the group fragile, unless there is a strong value placed on the validity of diversity itself.

In times of stress or crisis, whether a corporate crisis, rapid societal change or a surprise event, the script to which people have grown accustomed is itself exploded, and people tend to experience dissonance, an inability to put the story together.

Cognitive Neuroscientists Reveal our Storytelling Brains

Cognitive neuroscience is still at an early stage in some ways, but emerging studies reveal that our brains are hard wired for storytelling.  Michael Gazzaniga, a pioneer in this field, has studied people with ‘split brains,’ in which the right and left hemispheres can no longer communicate with each other, so normal sense-making is impaired. Taking advantage of the fact that information can only be fed to one side of the brain at a a time, Gazzaniga discerned that if the left brain is deprived of all of the information required to understand a situation, it will invent an explanation.

In his studies, people who have not seen an object placed in their hand, such as a coffee cup, will make up a reason even if they do not know. “Oh yes, I have not had coffee today and was going to get a cup.” Jonathan Gottschall, who writes about this work in his book The Storytelling Animal suggests that this ability to generate explanations evolved in humans  so that we could “experience our lives as coherent, orderly and meaningful,” even if that means we must project meaning into situations when they threaten to appear random or incoherent.

For most of us, most of the time, our storytelling brain is a kind of black box that keeps the mechanics of what we are doing out of view.  We don’t really notice how we are putting together stories: picking up different information, solving the ongoing mystery of what is happening by privileging some events, dismissing others and putting it all in an order that makes sense.

We generally only notice stories when they are brought to our attention as fictions: when we read novels or watch movies.

In our everyday lives, as English professor Kay Young and medical doctor Jeffrey Saver have written,  our storymaking is so well integrated into our lives that it is invisible. We don’t notice that our conversations are a process of developing a story with someone else, or the activity of selecting and ordering particular memories to make sense of our lives.

Alternatively, as cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner has persuasively argued, we notice the mechanics of storytelling when  archetypes or formulas are disrupted, forcing us to question not just the content, but the rules that govern our narratives. Disruption can come in the form of personal events such as  unexpected illnesses or unexpected windfalls. It also arrives in our lives via public events. When we  watch the daily news, take part in our local communities, or go to work,  occurrences either adhere to the script to which we have become accustomed, or upset our “whole” story of what we implicitly believe should be happening. As a result we may lose our confidence that we are putting the “parts” together correctly.

All of that activity takes place in the ‘black box’ of our narrative-making brain, which Young and Saver describe as a distributed neural network that includes three different areas, each with its own function. Memories are organized in the amygdaloid-hippocampal system; language is constructed in the left peri-sylvain region; and events (whether real or imaginary) are placed in narrative structures in the frontal cortices (Young and Saver, 75). When the brain is well functioning, we are able to systematize our experience in narrative form, which in turn gives us a sense of self.

When we lose our narrative ability, this can have profound effects on our sense of self.  This has been demonstrated in people suffering injuries in the narrating parts of the brain.  Young and Saver describe several different expressions of dysnarrativia,the inability to narrate. Some amnesiacs get stuck in a particular period, unable to tell about events over time anymore. Others fabricate false memories without recognizing that they are false.  Some people who sustain injuries to certain parts of the frontal lobe lose the ability to assemble their experiences in a story.  Such people can become sluggish or even motionless for long periods.  “Individuals who have lost the ability to construct narrative…. have lost themselves,” say Young and Saver.

Ultimately, though, we don’t just live in our own solipsistic stories, but in the social world of work, family and community. There, we engage each other in a kind of narrative marketplace, becoming characters in the stories of others and inviting them into or rejecting them from our own.

How the body changes in response to engagement with stories

Paul Zak, the founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, has explored people’s physical responses to the stories of others by measuring oxytocin levels of people watching films or listening to stories in a lab. In experiments, he showed that deep engagement in a story leads us to release oxytocin, a chemical  that increases positive, helpful impulses. Zak suggests that this response relates to our emotional involvement:

If you pay attention to the story and become emotionally engaged with the story’s characters, then it is as if you have been transported into the story’s world. This is why your palms sweat when James Bond dodges bullets. And why you stifle a sniffle when Bambi’s mother dies.

Such engagement does not only happen with fictions but with the ‘true stories’ of our lives when we become deeply engaged: At work, in our personal lives, in the ‘characters’ we encounter in news stories, in our communities and nations.

How to Make Practical Use of this Information

Understanding that people organize their experiences through narrative has powerful implications for leaders and organizations who are seeking to manage or generate change.  There are many insights that understanding our narrative brains make possible; here are just a few.

  • Lack of communication within an organization produces narrative ambiguity. People will create reasons for what is happening when they do not have enough information or cannot make sense of what is happening.
  • Leadership storytelling is important but it is only one part of creating a meaningful environment. Everyone generates his or her own story based on how they experience external events. Leadership stories are one event; others lie in the environment, in formal and informal processes that structure the organization, and in policies for example. So good leadership lies in using all of the tools that shape the environment to enable good stories to flourish.
  • An environment in that supports good stories likely includes:
    • High levels of transparency and good communication channels
    • Validation of a diverse interpretations of what is happening, within a range considered reasonable and productive
    • Being surrounded by others who have a positive story to tell and can interact in validating ways
  • In times of turbulence and uncertainty,  people are likely suffer forms of dysnarrativia because it is difficult to place parts of the story in a coherent ‘whole.’  We question the “whole” as our assumptions are disrupted.  In the face of planned or unexpected change, leaders should recognize the possibility that people’s underlying understanding of the organizational narrative may be upset, and seek to mitigate negative effects.

Sources mentioned in this blog post:

  • Jerome Bruner, “The Narrative Construction of Reality,”  Critical Inquiry 18, 1991.
  • Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, Houghton Mifflin, 2012
  • Kay Young and Jeffrey Saver, “The Neurology of Narrative,” SubStance 30, 2001
  • Jerome Lettvin,“What the Frog’s Eye Tells the Frog’s Brain,” 1958
  • Paul Zak, “Why Inspiring Stories Make us React, The Neuroscience of Narrative,” Cerebrum, February 2015

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