We are natural born storytellers
Telling stories is something all people, everywhere, love to do. My dad used to tell tales of his fishing trips on rubber dinghies which to me, hearing his recounting and having actually been there, bordered on the fictitious.
My friends often talk to me about girls they have seen or incidents they have witnessed in a way which leaves me feeling certain that what I have missed, in each case, is the most beautiful girl on the planet and the most earth-shattering moment of angst, happiness or wonder.
One of my colleagues has consistently told me of every girl he has ever gone out with that she is the most beautiful, sexy girl a guy can imagine. We are, it seems, constantly forming a narrative in our heads, there is a running movie going through our minds where we are cast, depending upon the moment and who we are with as either leads or supporting actors.
The plot we run is put together, as we go through the day (and our lives) is edited on the fly, special effects are added, as required, character actors come in and out, rise in importance or drop, until we have a movie we can ‘play’ at a moment’s notice.
The movie, of course, is produced by our memories and our knowledge and, here, you will probably be forgiven for questioning whether we really piece a movie together which is selectively edited, in effect, stretching the truth a little (or a lot) like my dad did with his fishing tales, and perhaps, even, lying to ourselves a little bit.
I could, here, recount the instances in which phrases occur in literature, and even everyday life (such as ‘get real’ for instance), which remind us that we can deceive ourselves and lie to our own mind but the example would be more effectively illustrated by looking at some scientific research instead.
Neuroscience is a science which aims to uncover the way we use our brain. Those active in it uncover truths which then are used to help us understand just how we function in our own reality. Most science is informed by suppositions which are derived from common sense, which, in turn, become the basis for a working hypothesis.
As happens in most aspects of science, you would expect research to eventually, catch up with the ‘gut feeling’ which informs the original suppositions. Philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists usually consider remembering to be a solitary activity. We envision the lone researcher, lost in contemplation like Rodin's iconic sculpture of the Thinker, recalling his past.
In memory experiments, thousands of subjects have sat alone in front of computers or memory drums (older devices designed to present information), or have lain inside giant magnets, duly recollecting events of their lives, while their brains were studied. As a result of all this cumulative work, we have learned much about how remembering works. However, this tradition of research fails to capture a prominent characteristic of everyday remembering which is the social aspect. In everyday life people do not just sit alone and try to remember. They do not engage on their own in thought, reflecting on their past and, perhaps, wondering about their future. People tend to reminisce in groups, whether at family dinners, reunions, or other social groupings.
Memories and the ways we employ them are then important. They not only shape our internal model of what is real but they also become the building blocks of the narratives we tell ourselves and others. They become the storylines running inside our heads which then become externalized and interwoven with those of others and form a much larger, richer tapestry which, eventually, becomes history.
The need to sit around the proverbial fire and storytell is so deep in us, that it has given rise to a multi-billion dollar global industry by the way of films, books and (to a degree) video games. These all explore one aspect of the need to escape and experience a world which is different to the one we live in right now.
Because we are all familiar with make-believe, we are also, most of us, secure in that we, as individuals, would never fabricate the truth, create memories which are not true and then use them as part of our real-life internal narrative. We are confident that the world we see and the world we understand is recorded in our brains as hard-fact neurological equivalents of little 1s and 0s and that we then use these as the building blocks of whatever narrative we star in.
Well, that’s what Micah Edelson, Tali Sharot, Raymond Dolan and Yadin Dudai, four neuroscience researchers with the Department of Neurobiology, Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel, expected to find too. To test this they devised a little experiment where they asked groups of volunteers to take part in a simple experiment.
The volunteers were shown a short, documentary style film (to keep it as realistic as possible) where a police arrest was shown. They were then called back three days later and given a questionnaire about it which was devised to test the accuracy of their recollection on the events they had seen on the film. As you would expect, the accuracy levels were pretty high with the participants exhibiting a very good recollection of the events they had witnessed.
The researchers then brought the participants back in, just four days later to answer another questionnaire. This time they wired them up to a brain scanner in order to study the physical changes which occur in the brain and also gave them, under the guise of helping them remember, a memory jogger with purported to show the answers to the questions of the other members of the group. The memory jogger had answers which contradicted the reality of the events the participants had watched on the documentary.
In what must be a worrying result when it comes to sequestered juries debating the fate of an accused, this time nearly 70% of those questioned changed their recollection to conform to what they perceived to be the group norm.
This part of the results of the experiment should not really come as a surprise. We have long known about the peer group pressure issue which makes even the best raised teenager participate in petty vandalism, recreational drug taking, smoking and alcohol drinking in order to fit in with the group norm perception of fun.
We have all been in situations ourselves, as adults, where we have kept our mouths shut or agreed with an opinion we would not normally agree with because we did not want to stick out from the group. Social lying is a verified phenomenon. It is also lying which we engage in knowingly, we do not, for instance, change our opinion about something, we just keep that opinion hidden and appear to have a different public opinion.
The experiment conducted by the researchers in Israel did not place those taking part in it in a situation of peer group pressure, except perhaps in their minds. When almost 70% of them changed their recollection of events they had witnessed in the film, to conform, they did so because some perhaps felt a certain amount of peer group pressure and because, quite possibly, some were unsure of the accuracy of their own recollection.
Conscious lying and even social lying, the so-called, fibbing or white-lying, is hardly new and hardly earth-shaking and unlikely to produce any paradigm shift no matter how widespread it might be as a practice. This is part of what we call public conformity and each of us practices this every day. We might, for instance, privately disagree with possession of marijuana being a criminal offence but publicly we support it because to speak out for it will class us as either pot-heads, or as people who want the law to be “soft on drugs”.
The researchers understood this so they took their experiment one step further. A week later, the participants were called back again to undergo yet a third bout of questioning about the events they had witnessed in the film. This time they were also told that the answers they had received help with last time had actually been drawn from random samples rather than the group replies to the questions. The researchers were meticulous, they screened the participants for doubts as to the legitimacy of the previous answers (which would indicate that they would critically re-examine their own recollection and behaviour) and excluded any from the group.
The results, again undertaken with an fMRI brain scanner showed that almost half of those questioned persisted with their false memories of the events they had supposedly witnessed in the film. This meant that despite the fact that now there was no reason for social lying, nevertheless, almost half of those questioned had changed their story and were now sticking to it. Even more interesting is what was recorded by the fMRI equipment.
It is one thing to lie to others. It is less understandable how one can knowingly lie to one’s self. White lies, fibbing and even bigger porkies are all part of the social contract. We never say completely what we think because the narrative which runs in our heads, works in advance to bring up all alternative scenarios and consequences and then gives us all the possible options to choose from. So, at work, we agree that our boss’ inane marketing plan is “super”, we always say “No” to the question “does my bum look big in this?” and we never tell our best friend he’s acting like a jerk, when he is.
We also get into the habit of labelling our cowardice and lack of action as “strategic thinking”, always tell ourselves that we did OK “under the circumstances” and actually believe that the diet, training plan, secret work project, novel, we have been planning to start is something we will begin “next week”.
All of these activities are part of the storytelling we do. The narrative we fashion.
Now here’s the interesting thing, by mentioning the words ‘narrative’ and ‘storytelling’ we assume that there is some kind of master editor inside our heads who takes bits and pieces of what we see, hear and understand, examines them critically under some self-defined spotlight of criteria, knowingly discards what cannot be used and knowingly puts together what can be used in order to end up with ‘our story’.
This scenario assumes full consciousness of our decisions in view of a social context, which means that really, deep down, we are fully aware of what is real and what is not, of what is the truth we have witnessed and what is the lie we have just told. We choose to lie because we think it will help us fit in perhaps, or make us sound better, or raise the perceived value of ourselves in the eyes of other members of the group, but though we do so, we believe that when we do lie, we know the difference between lies and the truth. Well, in the fMRI study the results told a different story.
By comparing the physical states of the brain between the two instances: one, when the participants were being guided in their own answers by the false answers of what they thought was the rest of the group and two, when they had to remember, entirely on their own and free from any kind of peer group pressure or the notion that social lying would give them any advantage, the researchers were able to see at work, the reality of the brain itself, which in turn shapes the world we think we see.
When it comes to storing memories there are two centers in the brain which are. The first one is the hippocampus, first discovered by the Venetian anatomist Julius Caesar Aranzi in 1587, who initially likened it to a seahorse, using the Latin: hippocampus. It sits inside the media temporal lobe in the brain, it is a paired structure (like the left and right hemispheres of the temporal lobes) and belongs to the limbic system, one of the oldest, fundamental parts of the brain itself.
The second centre involved in the storage of memories is the amygdala (itself comprised of several regions) which is also part of the limbic brain. Research has shown that the amygdala in the brain is used to perform a primary role in the processing and memory of emotional reactions, one of its primary roles in the formation and storage of memories associated with emotional events. It plays a significant role in the formation and retention of lifelong memories.
By comparing the states of their subjects’ brain between the times when they knowingly were lying because of the social pressure introduced which induced them to do so and when they had no real reason to lie, the researchers were able to examine the differences between the two states. What they discovered was that a co-activation between the hippocampus and the amygdala showed that the brain was actively replacing one set of memories with another, essentially changing the physical record of its recollection of the events the participants in the study had witnessed and, thereby, substituting real memories with false ones.
It was like someone had gone into the hard drive of a computer which held a record of a video showing an event and had edited it, changing some of the facts to fit a different narrative storyline. Anyone subsequently viewing the video, without any knowledge of the edit, would have to accept it as truth.
Essentially what the research carried out in Israel showed was that our natural-born storytelling ability, which is part of the armory of tricks we use to survive in a social group situation, can be co-opted by clever social media manipulation, to make us lie convincingly to ourselves without our own knowledge.
Stunned by their findings the researchers wrote:
Altering memory in response to group influence may produce untoward effects. For example, social influence such as false propaganda can deleteriously affect individuals’ memory in political campaigns and commercial advertising and impede justice by influencing eyewitness testimony. However, memory conformity may also serve an adaptive purpose, because social learning is often more efficient and accurate than individual learning. For this reason, humans may be predisposed to trust the judgment of the group, even when it stands in opposition to their own original beliefs.
So, in other words, we can be betrayed by our own biology to believe in things which are not real, as if they are.
Whether we like it or not, we are locked into a two tier universe. In the first tier is biology and biological processes (and this governs neurophysiology) and in the second tier there is technology which is the main engine powering the core changes in our civilization.
Biology works slowly, changes happening in this field take decades to make themselves felt and then decades more to become completely integrated in who we are. Technology works, like the internet, in dog years. Each year of our lives we experience seven years’ worth of accumulated technological change.
It is not change itself however which causes problems. It is rather the rate of change and the acceleration we achieve each time we experience change.
At a time when fake news and social media amplification have played such huge part in changing the political landscape in Europe and the US it is clear that when it comes to understanding our own minds and how they are affected by what we see, what we perceive and what we do, we clearly have a lot of work to do, still.