During an interview Salman Rushdie introduced the role of storytelling in defining a human being:
We tell ourselves into being, don’t we? I think that is one of the great reasons for stories. I mean, we are the storytelling animal, there is no other creature on earth that tells itself stories in order to understand who it is. (1)
From ancient shamans to modern movie directors, through magicians of all ages, the power of narrative has been extensively analysed and used, both for the purpose of entertainment and emotional/spiritual growth.
In the 1970s the assumption that narratives shape a person’s identity inspired the work of Michael White and David Epston, creators of the Narrative Therapy, a form of psychotherapy where the therapist helps the patient by developing with him richer and more functional narratives. The two therapists considered each story as both describing and shaping people’s perspectives on their lives, histories and futures, and their purpose was to collaborate with patients in stepping away from oppressive stories to discovering the "untold" story involving their secrets commitments, hopes, desires and dreams.
The idea that we are our stories may be a good description of our perceived inner world, but its vagueness has been criticized by skeptics (2); they have pointed at the lack of clinical and empirical studies to validate the claims of narrative therapy, whose focus on qualitative outcomes is difficult to assess with a scientific approach. A recent study (3) by Jason S. Moser, Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychology of the Michigan State University, tried to investigate the correlation between electric neural signals and the different "stories" - to which Moser referred with the term "mind-sets" - told by a number of subjects.
Is your intelligence something fluid?
Do you think that intelligence is something fluid - i.e. that if you apply yourself better, you will become smarter? If so, your narrative will be opposite to the one endorsed by the owners of a (perceived) fixed intelligence. In the context of the first story, the brain is described as an incremental unit: from this point of view, failure is always a learning opportunity. The second narrative describes brain as a static entity, and failure is just a frustrating personal shortcoming, impossible to be remedied.
Moser and his colleagues divided the participants in two groups, according to the self-assessed personal narrative (incremental vs. static), and gave them a task that was easy to make a mistake on: they were shown a string of letters (LLILL) and asked to quickly identify the middle one. Each subject wore a cap recording electrical activity in the brain during the task.
Performance accuracy was high in both groups (more than 90%), and Moser identified two peculiar short signals occuring within a quarter of a second after each mistake. The first one was called "oh crap!"-response: it indicated something had gone wrong. The second signal reflected awareness of mistakes and allocation of attention to them - technically called "post-error positivity" (Pe) component, reflecting the "I-see-that-I’ve-made-a-mistake-so-I-should-pay-more attention" attitude.
Moser discovered that the brains associated with the incremental narrative reacted with a bigger second signal, but also with a greater accuracy after mistakes compared with individuals endorsing the static narrative. It seems that a belief in the incremental theory of intelligence is associated with a better control systems on a neural level. In the words of Jason S. Moser,
People who think they can learn from their mistakes have brains that are tuned to pay more attention to mistakes.
This study touches the question at the core of narrative therapy: has narrative a specific "power" interfering with neural systems? Or does a specific neural system push the individual into selecting a narrative mirroring his inner attitude? Both forces are probably at work. Confirming Alan Moore's quote:
There are people. There are stories. The people think they shape the stories, but the reverse is often closer to the truth. (4)
(1) Matthew D’Ancona, "We have been wimpish about defending our ideas", Spectator.co.uk, 9.4.2008.
(2) For example M. Etchison et al., "Review of Narrative Therapy: Research and Review" in Family Journal 8(1), 2000, pp. 61-67.
(3) Jason S. Moser et al., "Mind Your Errors - Evidence for a Neural Mechanism Linking Growth Mind-Set to Adaptive Posterror Adjustments" in Psychological Science, December 2011 vol. 22 no. 12, pp. 1484-1489.
(4) Alan Moore, Swamp Thing - Love and Death, Vol. 2.