Saturday, November 16, 2013

The natural world versus the human world

"In the real world, Jason had found, there was no such thing as a narrative. Reality was made up of never-ending cycles...Out of obscure beginnings life went on growing into infinity; conclusions, as essential as they are to all plot, are an invention."

~Peter H√łeg, Tales of the Night

The natural world does not lend itself to storytelling. Physics and chemistry are alien and counter-intuitive realms, difficult for most of humanity to comprehend. The worlds of biology and ecology lack heroic narratives, being largely a timeline of unceasing struggle without climax or denouement - the actors fading in and fading out in waves of branching speciation, adaptation, and absorption or utter extinction.

Ironically enough, even the story of humanity itself is hardly the stuff of epics. When confronted with actual History as captured in period documents and artifacts, filmmakers and novelists around the world almost always resort to a drastic shearing and pruning: cutting away major events, deleting important players, and compressing years and drawn out decision points to days or minutes in order to come up with something dramatic that theater-going audiences will watch and book-buying individuals will read cover to cover.

Even the real time narratives of the present can have little to do with reality. Individuals and whole societies have ridden ideological narratives down in flames to destruction or devastation, unable to let go of the stories of who and what they saw themselves as being, until a blood-drenched threshold of loss was exceeded. Many of these events were all the more tragic because the destructive narrative was often only one of several tribal or national narratives that somewhere along the way had picked up an ugly critical mass.

Or maybe a sad and constricting inertia better describes the phenomenon. Political narratives woven into group identity have caused individuals to disregard the findings of science, the potential lessons of recent defeats, and to abandon critical analysis of the lives of those who have gone through similar situations before them.

Yet when it's all said and done, we human beings - products of the natural world that we are - are very much intuitive creators and gatherers of narrative. It seems to be a characteristic of us around the world. Even many of the themes we use globally are similar, though the variations are local and many. Heroism, nobility, revenge, redemption, wish fulfillment, the enforcement of cultural norms as aspects of the universe in the form of divinities or divine laws.

Tragedy earned, and tragedy unearned.

In many respects, an education in the sciences or engineering, and the cultivation of professionalism in almost any field, are attempts to overcome to limitations of narrative. A drive to stop filling in gaps in knowledge with assumptions drawn from the form and structure of our native cultures' stories and our personal narratives, and to embrace a more empirical view of the world. A view that often runs roughshod over those comfortable stories.

There are probably good reasons why the natural world instilled this love of narrative in our brains. The pre-conscious pathways and signal-processing modules in our brains appear to fuse the streams of disjointed sensory information and the memories they evoke into a coherent story for our consciousnesses to make decisions within. And given how emotions are the primary evaluation system that we use to quickly judge and prioritize the importance of events, our narratives are by necessity heavily driven by feelings.

via Big Think.

Narratives also offer a schema for the brain's chronologically organized autobiographical memory subsystem to help impart structure to the unceasing flows of data moving through our brains, and to do so in a way that lets us comprehend ourselves both as individuals and as members of the societies. This also helps us to notice linear causes and effects observable only over long durations, and to capture and store durable individual and cultural recollections of them.

In that sense both group and individual narratives are likely flawed but necessary tools. Which makes me wonder what a species whose memories and personal narratives were organized on the basis of space rather than linear time would be like. Our semantic memory subsystem, the one that holds and recalls abstract information independent of the situation in which it was learned, may well have evolved from a spatially organized system of memory concerned with recalling positive and negative stimuli.*

*Yes, I'm working on a story that incorporates the idea. Brain stuff and its cultural manifestations are an enduring personal obsession.

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