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This is Your Brain on Stories

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Gretchen

Bi, she/her. Gretchen is an unabashed nerdy fangirl and aspiring sci/fi and fantasy author. She has opinions about things like media, representation, and fandom. She serves as a Managing Editor for The Fandomentals.
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The Ethics of Storytelling, Part 3 (Part 1, Part 2)

If you know anything about me as a writer for The Fandomentals, you’ll know that ‘stories matter’ has become a bit of refrain for me (okay more than a bit). The phrase pops up in all of my social media accounts and my website. I talk about it a lot in my reviews of various TV shows. This very series of articles on Ethics in Storytelling stems from that one concept. It’s basically my career soapbox at this point, and I don’t plan on that changing any time soon.

In the last of my articles in this series, I wrote about why stories matter: their power to shape one’s perception of self, the Other, and the world in positive and negative ways. I realized sometime afterward that I’d put the cart before the horse a bit. It’s one thing to say stories matter because they shape our thinking. But the counter-argument invariably emerges that some people are ‘above’ being influenced. Or, to put it differently, that human beings have the ability to exist apart from socio-cultural narratives and can judge them impartially as we consume them. We’ll know when we hear a ‘bad story’ and be able to reject it without it influencing us.

It’s a reasonable argument. After all, many of us can and do recognize that stories are harmful. If no one was capable of recognizing toxic or problematic stories, this website wouldn’t really exist. So, I realized I needed to back up a bit and explain not just that stories matter but how. How do stories shape us? How do our brains process and interpret stories? And, what does all of this mean for the responsibility of storytellers?

Of Words and How They Mean

Full confession: I’m not just an unabashed nerdy fangirl, I am a dork with a capitol D. I love languages. I went to school for ancient languages and linguistics. If you want to keep me occupied for a long period of time, ask me about The Great Vowel Shift or the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language at the end of the 19th century. Or, about how a bunch of dudes in the Enlightenment decided to try and make English more like Latin. Best be prepared for a rant if you ask about the latter, though. I have a lot of opinions about it, most of them cranky.

So, when I sat down to think about how stories matter, my first instinct was to look to language itself for a model. The building blocks of stories are words and concepts, after all. Both stories and language itself are, at heart, attempts to create and communicate meaning out of lived experience. But how does that happen? Now, there are whole fields devoted to these subjects (e.g., neuro-linguistics, semantics, cognitive linguistics), but don’t worry, I’m going to summarize. And I’ll do my best not to get to jargon-y.

So, to start off with, words have meaning. Groundbreaking, right? You’re probably thinking I wasted money on a degree in this shit, right about now, but bear with me. The most prominent theory of word meaning (lexical semantics if you want to know the terminology) posits that while a single word can’t mean anything, it can mean many things. What exactly it means in any given situation derives from context clues.

Take the word ‘bank’ for instance. Look it up in a dictionary and you’ll find three different clusters of meanings: one related to slope or inclination (like a river bank or the inclination of an airplane), one related to finances, and one related to a linear or tiered arrangements of objects. I found 23 different definitions of the word ‘bank’, and those were just noun forms. It’s dizzying. And yet, most speakers of English would have little trouble determining which meaning applies to the sentence “I’m heading down to the bank this afternoon to get cash”. Why? Because context informs which meaning our brain defaults to. People don’t usually get money from a river or the cushion of a pool table.

Over time, one meaning may become dominant as it’s usage grows more frequent. Take ‘bank’ again. If I said, sans context, “I’m going to the bank”, most people would assume I meant the financial institution. Why? Because most of the time, that’s what people mean by ‘bank’.

This points to the fact that the human brain is both incredibly lazy and incredibly efficient. In fact, it is in it’s very laziness that efficiency emerges. Your brain cycling through every single possible meaning of the word ‘bank’ every time someone uses it would waste an incredible amount of energy. “This word means one thing, except in circumstances where these other words or concepts occur” is a much more efficient system. It’s lazy insofar as it arises from the brain’s desire to expend minimal energy for maximum interpretive potential. Prioritizing meaning in this way saves energy and processing power that the brain can utilize elsewhere.

I call this process the creation of ‘meaning pathways’: connections between specific words and their meaning informed by context and frequency. Think of it as the linguistic equivalent of the ‘path of least resistance’ mentality. As I phrased it in my piece on male victimization:

“Absent specific clues, the brain takes the shortest pathway of interpretation, whether it be a word or a concept.”

If not corrected or specifically led elsewhere, the brain defaults to the most common perception of a word’s meaning.

Or, if you want another example, think of it like driving a cart down a wide dirt road. There are many possible ways to travel this road with your wheeled conveyance. But, chances are there’s a well worn rut down the center (or maybe one of the sides). Unless you specifically direct your cart elsewhere, it’s going to take that rut. Why? Because it’s simplest and requires the least amount of effort to use. That’s a ‘meaning pathway’, only it’s in your brain not on the road. And instead of being about going physical distances, it refers to traversing the distance from language input to word or concept meaning.

Contextual Meaning and Relevance

You better believe I’m going to use this gif.

Communication theories reinforce this basic premise on a larger scale than words. One such theory, known as Relevance Theory, posits (among other things) that the human brain is wired to maximize relevance in communication. In any given situation, it will do no more processing than is necessary to achieve a contextually relevant meaning. It’s basically my idea of a ‘meaning pathway’ writ large to include entire utterances like speeches or whole conversations.

As with word context, relevance theory implies that context has a significant part to play in determining what people mean when they communicate on a conversational level. Just think of the idea of ‘discourse’. In an academic setting, ‘discourse’ refers to a neutral, frank discussion of ideas. It’s basically just a fancy way to say an earnest, intelligent conversation. On Tumblr, ‘discourse’ is decidedly negative in tone. That’s because Tumblr has a culture and framework of its own in which that idea, and how it plays out as a dialogue between people, progresses in a particular way. Thus, engaging in ‘discourse’ will make some concepts more relevant depending on whether you’re on Tumblr or in a classroom talking philosophy.

All sorts of things determine relevance. Physical context, the preceding topic of conversation, familiarity with the person and their speaking patterns, a history of communication. All of these impact which pathway a brain will default to as ‘relevant’ to any given situation. ‘Relevance’ is just a way of speaking about the necessity of context to determine not just what individual words mean, but also entire conversations and how those conversations will play out. Because brains are lazy and want to do minimal effort to maximize meaning.

Moreover, as a theory of communication more generally, Relevance Theory also applies to the interpretation of media and art. “Utterances” are more than verbal. We read and interpret books in a certain way because of what our brain finds relevant to that book’s meaning, for example. This is why two people can read the same book and walk away with a different meaning. Because although the author of that book may have intended one meaning, readers bring different sets of assumptions to their experience of reading. Their brain’s definition of ‘relevant meaning’ can differ because their brain has different contexts that shape it’s processing of information.

In other words, they have different default meaning pathways. Brains will do the minimal amount of work to find a meaning that ‘makes sense’ in context and stop processing.

Conditioned Meaning, Or Brains Sucks Sometimes

Sometimes I mean this ironically.

I’m going to veer off road a bit and discuss another field of study that focuses on patterns of thought and the creation of meaning: psychology. Specifically, cognitive psychology and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is based on the premise that people’s reactions to events are based more on their perception of that event than on the event itself. In other words, people have frameworks for interpreting situations in either positive, negative, or neutral ways and react based on those frameworks. CBT seeks to challenge negative patterns of thought/frameworks in order to change ineffective behavior or coping mechanisms.

The frameworks that behavioral therapists seek to dismantle and rebuild in healthier ways are no different from what linguists and communication theorists call ‘meaning’, just applied differently. Because perception is just another way to say “what this means”. Or, put better, “what this means to me”. Because perception is both personal and conditioned. My perception of an event reflects my thought processes, my feelings, my conceptual frameworks. But these, in turn, are conditioned by my history and experience.

For example, I was raised in a home where policing volume was used to control my participation in conversations. Therefore, when someone tells me “Gretchen, you’re too loud”, what I hear is “Gretchen, you don’t matter, and I don’t want to listen to what you have to say”. The words ‘mean’ one thing but my brain interprets them based on a conditioned framework based on a pattern of interactions.

Another example would be how frustrating certain widely accepted soothing phrases are. I grew up in an emotionally volatile home where my older siblings projected their frustration with my mom’s mood swings onto me. Thus, I interpret phrases like “It’s going to be okay” to mean “You’re overly emotional about this and out of control”. Is that what the words “It’s going to be okay” actually mean? Not if you look in a dictionary. But that’s what they mean to me, because how I interpret certain phrases has been conditioned by my experience of what those words ‘meant’ in a different context.

It’s another way to talk about ‘meaning pathways’ essentially. Only these meaning pathways aren’t bound by the words themselves or even the context of a conversation. These are conditioned by a lifetime’s worth of experience. They’re old frameworks inasmuch as they stem from my childhood, and they’re therefore ingrained ones. The ruts in these meaning pathways are well worn, and my brain defaults to them on instinct.

Tellingly, many behavioral therapists call these frameworks stories.

The Root of Responsibility

And this is where I draw it all back in to storytelling. Because what I’ve elsewhere called ‘stories’ (i.e., narratives in media) are really just frameworks for interpretation. They’re no different from lived experience in terms of how our brain uses them to create meaning pathways. Just like language meaning derives from linguistic context or dialogue meaning derives from conversational or personal context. Narratives in media exist in their own form of social context. They represent the individual units of meaning in our cultural system of frameworks the same way that individual words function as units of meaning in language.

Stories—and by stories I mean any narrative in media, whether it occur in a book, film, TV, comics, etc—then, participate in a system of frameworks that make up our social consciousness. They influence us in the same way that words and conversations do; they shape our default meaning pathways.

“The gist of what communication and neurolinguistics theories tell us is that the human brain is both efficient and lazy. It takes the shortest path to contextual meaning. If not corrected or specifically led elsewhere, the brain defaults to the most common perception.” (source)

This is where responsibility comes into play. Stories either reinforce or undermine meaning pathways. When there is a prevailing norm for conceptualizing something, failure to challenge or offer specific details pointing in a different direction will be interpreted in line with the norm. Think of it like the meaning of the word ‘bank’ mentioned above. Absent any context clues, my brain will assume ‘bank’ means ‘financial institution’ because that is the most common definition used in everyday conversation.

With words, meaning pathways are more likely to be neutral. However, that’s not always the case with cultural frameworks. Meaning pathways created by oppressive or problematic social systems are more likely to be problematic and harmful themselves. When this is the case, reinforcing the meaning pathway further reinforces negative frameworks.

I spoke about it in my article on male victimization. Our society’s default meaning pathway is ‘men cannot be victims of sexual violence’, and the stories on our screens reinforce these meaning pathways for ourselves as individuals. A character like Archie in Riverdale then, is perceived of as being equally culpable (and/or lucky) for having a relationship with an older woman that is actually illegal solely on her part.

Thus, storytellers have an immense burden of responsibility when it comes to problematic meaning pathways. As with words, lack of direct undermining reinforces the default meaning pathway by sheer absence of contradiction. Going back to the bank example. If I were to tell my friend, “I’m going to the bank”, and I meant ‘river bank’ but did not tell her, she would assume I meant the financial institution. By not specifying otherwise, I have reinforced the default meaning, even though it is wrong.

The same applies to stories. Hence, depiction without context or contradiction will be interpreted by the audience as endorsement. In many situations, this does no active harm to viewers. We use this neural pathway process all the time, actually. It’s what tropes and archetypes are, just put in different words. If you see an old man with a long beard and a staff in a fantasy novel, chances are you can assume he’s a Wise Mentor. Again, this is useful because it’s more efficient for the brain to deal in shorthand and stereotypes. It maximizes efficiency.

But it can do active harm when stories either directly or indirectly reinforce harmful meaning pathways. Depicting bisexual woman as manipulative or cheating. Depicting black men as volatile, violent, or drug-addicted. Having a man play the character of a trans woman. Each of these situations reinforces pre-existing negative societal meaning pathways. Absent a direct challenge, the repeated use of violence as a ‘power up’ for ‘weak’ female characters on Game of Thrones reinforces patriarchal concepts of toxic masculinity and violence as empowerment.

Stories literally have power to shape social and individual consciousness directly through the creation and reinforcement of meaning pathways. Storytellers, as the creators and purveyors of meaning pathways, have tremendous responsibility for how they wield that power in the stories they tell.

So What Do We Do?

The good news is that meaning pathways can be changed. It’s hard and takes a lot of work, but it can be done. The whole point of the therapeutic discipline of CBT is to undermine and change negative thought patterns. It can be done on a personal level if the patient commits to do the work and actively challenge these frameworks.

It can be done on a societal level as well. The lazy brain meaning pathway can be changed, but only by interaction with the new ideas over and over again. It’s why normalization, exposure, and representation matter. Because by seeing things more and more often, we can change that default setting.

In 1996, a Gallup poll found that only 27% percent of Americans surveyed agreed that same-sex marriage ought to be legal. 20 years later, 61% of Americans surveyed by the same poll believe it should be legal. The numbers more than doubled in 20 years and what did we have during that time? TV, film, and books that normalized same-sex relationships. Media that depicted LGBT+ characters as mothers, sons, wives, daughters, cousins, husbands, friends, bosses. We had media that sought to depict LGBT+ persons as ‘just like you and me’. They too, were worthy of love and acceptance. They too, hurt and suffered prejudice. The more humanized LGBT+ people were in our media, the more favorable widespread opinion became toward marriage equality.

That’s the power of stories. Changing meaning pathways from oppressive and harmful to positive. And it’s precisely because stories both shape and can change these pathways that representation, diversity, and storytelling itself matters. Stories aren’t just the origin of the problem, they’re also, when done sensitively and inclusively, the solution.


 

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