The Brain Story Connection

by Ralph Chatham

Last year, while conducting a workshop on Industrial Strength Storytelling, I got so taken with our newly-gained understanding of how people’s brains work that I ran out of time. Writing, however, has the advantage that when the words run on, I can cut them without your knowing how long-winded I was to begin with. So, here is the story of how our brains are wired to think in stories themselves. I warn you that I am going to get a little technical in what follows. I will try to ease the intellectual pain by lots of metaphor. I believe that the insight into why we should tell stories and why stories work is worth the journey.

Introducing the uniqueness of your brain by way of a diversion into current events

During her confirmation hearings to become an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Judge Sotomayor’s retreat from her “rhetorical flourish” that a wise old Latina might decide better than a wise old man may have been the right tactic to secure confirmation, but it was also a retreat from a truth about the human mind. Back in 1890, William James formulated a general law of perception: “Whilst part of what we perceive comes through our senses from the object before us, another part (and it may be the larger part) always comes out of our mind” We now know that James did not go far enough. Even what comes to us through our senses is not what is actually out there, but a highly filtered construct created by brain circuits unique to each individual.

Your eye is not a camera

I am going to start explaining how our brain does all of its processing by using the visual system as an example. Later on, I will tell you that each our other senses work the same way – and that the brain also mixes their information into the processing of vision as well. So here we go.

Nature’s eyes don’t record a picture all at once like a camera does. An eye, human or animal, wanders in fits and starts about a scene. When it stops for a moment, your retina cuts the welter of information falling upon it into pieces: edges, changes, motion, contrasts, colors, textures, light and dark, eye status, and a few other image primitives that we don’t yet understand. The optic nerves transmit these filtered fragments of the scene (10 times fewer bits of data than actually received by the rods and cones) to the back of the head where the brain starts to reassemble them. A moment later the brain tells the eye to move, blanks the optic nerve’s input during the move, and then pays attention again.

The back of your head takes all of this stuff pouring into it and abstracts the data into more complex kinds of filtered-fragments like: line segments and their lengths and orientations. These, and many other aspects of the scene move on forward in the brain to be abstracted and combined with other sensory information into: segment pairings, sequences, and orientations relative to up and down (crows looking at an upside-down human face turn their heads upside-down to recognize them just as you might turn a book right-side-up to read it). You get the idea now, I hope. Each level of sorting leads to more abstract concepts as the brain reassembles scene data into things like outlines; then to shapes (does that outline look like a snake or an elephant, or a snake that just ate an elephant or …). Then on to confirmed objects; then to concepts like “limb, leaf, dog, face, stone” and on to even broader constructs like “lithesome, laugh, dread, father, story.”

When the self-aware part of your mind finally gets to see an object, you don’t see it objectively. You see what the mass of pattern-matching circuits in your brain delivers to the conscious thinking ‘you.’ It is a picture, assembled from many snap-shots where the eye has dwelled for a time on this part or that part of the world; a picture that has been taken apart, resorted, reassembled, oriented and mixed with other, non-visual, information.

Robert Burns’ Lament; you see what your experience has programmed your brains to see.

That Ploughman Poet was right: we can never see ourselves as others see us. We can’t see anything as others do. The brain’s response to any scene is unique to each individual. Circuits, built up by experience in one person, might deliver the perception: “old woman.” Another circuit in another brain would see: “wise Latina.” All the filtering and sorting in a third brain might trigger the elusive “grandmother cell” which stops the processing with the message, “that’s nana.”

As these higher-level perceptions are delivered to our conscious minds, most of the information that went into triggering those disparate interpretations is thrown away. Minds don’t clutter themselves with how the line segments were pieced together into a human outline, they just remember the final, filtered output. This, by the way, should get us insensitive males off the hook for not noticing the color of that dress. It’s not that I couldn’t care, it’s that my life experiences never taught my mind’s filters to save or pass that information on to my “conscious mind.” (That’s a term neuroscientists try hard not to use. I am not a neuroscientist, I only talk to them, so I will occasionally fall from grace and use it.) Like words cut from early drafts of this essay, the data that got my brain to the concept “dress” is simply not left in my head to be noted or remembered, at least until my wife generates an important new life experience that creates in my brain a special circuit to insure that I do see and recall dress colors. (We will not dwell on what my life experiences have taught my brain to remember about some dresses.)

Significant, repeated experience builds physical application-specific integrated circuits in our heads. In animals, we can actually watch those circuits develop. These circuits and filters are unique to each of us, created to let us see better, with no conscious thought, what we have seen before. No matter how much we might strive to be impartial observers, we simply cannot see what others see. They had different experiences and thus have different brain circuits.

My wife looks at a roadside and instantly sees half-a-dozen invasive exotic plants. My brain registers only green. A former boss looks at equations, things he works with every day, and instantly sees meaning. I struggle with the import of each symbol. It’s not just that he is three times smarter than I (although he is) but his experience has shaped specialty processors in his head to interpret what life has asked of his mind. Dennis Proffitt of the University of Virginia showed that everyone vastly over-estimate slopes (it comes as a great surprise to those of us who have driven up Lombard Street to learn that no road grade in San Francisco is greater than 18┬░). When tired, we see a slope as five to ten degrees steeper than we would had we been rested. This altered view of reality also varies with the observer’s longer-term life experiences, e.g., growing up on the plains or in the Colorado mountains. Iowans actually see slopes as steeper. These differences among people run amazingly deep. Richard Nisbett showed that they extend down to the very first steps we take to interpret the world; there are measurable cultural differences even in how our eyes scan a scene and on what features they dwell and how long they dwell upon different kinds of features.

It’s Alive, or We see the world actively, not passively

We have, if you have not yet given up on reading this, seen that the brain works hard to assemble cleverly sliced-up fragments of sensory data into something meaningful to ourselves. As I hinted above for the eye, the process is not passive. When the part of the brain that is trying to figure out whether a line segment is vertical is uncertain, it tells the eyes to go back to that part of the scene and look again. It asks the inner ears for information about the orientation of the head when the eye was looking at that bit of the scene. It questions your muscle sensing (kinesthetic information) nerves to tell you how the head is tilted. Then, armed with this new data it sends on forward the information that these line segments are up-and-down, not sideways.

You can probably see immediately a similar pattern in trying to make sense of touch information coming from, say, our fingers. We feel something as smooth, changing to soft, and the brain asks the visual system to check on what it knows. It may tell your fingers to move over the surface again. Eventually, with the addition of a sharp sense of pain in your finger and your sense of groggy darkness, you decide that you have just encountered the cat under the covers.

Even the ear is not passive when it senses sound. Muscles in the ear change the shape of the ear canal in response to different kinds of sound. The brain-ear connection quickly damps down very loud sounds. The ear even creates sound itself to help compare incoming tones or beat against them.

So the brain actively interprets and toys with the data it receives from its senses. It sends out messages to help interpret the mass of data it receives and the self-aware you hardly ever plays in that game, or knows that the rest of your brain is doing this. Your unconscious brain is continually busy matching remembered patterns from your past to what you perceive in the present world and then telling your conscious mind what seems to be happening: is that line tilted as steeply as Lombard Street? Is that outline a dog? Is that shiny thing gold or iron pyrite? …

Confused? Don’t worry, if you hang on for another paragraph or two we will get to where “story” comes in.The Story Connection or Nicholas in “The Lumber Room”

The Story Connection or Nicholas in “The Lumber Room”

One of my favorite stories by Saki tells about an enterprising small boy, named Nicholas, who, through a clever ruse that started with putting a frog in his bowl of wholesome bread-and-milk, has managed to make his way into the storage or “lumber” room of his house, a place “carefully sealed from youthful eyes and about which no questions were ever answered.” The first thing he sees in that storehouse of unimagined treasures is a picture tapestry consigned by an aunt to dust and damp by way of preserving it.

“To Nicholas it was a living, breathing story. He sat down on a roll of Indian hangings, glowing in wonderful colours beneath a layer of dust, and took in all the details of the tapestry picture. A man, dressed in the hunting costume of some remote period, had just transfixed a stag with an arrow; it could not have been a difficult shot because the stag was only one or two paces away from him; in the thickly growing vegetation that the picture suggested it would not have been difficult to creep up to a feeding stag, and the two spotted dogs that were springing forward to join in the chase had evidently been trained to keep to heel till the arrow was discharged. That part of the picture was simple, if interesting, but did the huntsman see, what Nicholas saw, that four galloping wolves were coming his direction through the wood?”

Nicholas looks at a picture and sees a story. He makes sense of the picture as a story because human brains are wired to do so. For here is the most recent discovery: not only does every sense have a set of similar circuits wired up in our brain that all work the same way, but the exact same circuitry is wired up to the part of the human brain that does memory (it’s called the hippocampus, but don’t worry about that). Our brains treat memory exactly like each of the five (plus) senses.

If you have followed me so far, I hope you are asking yourself right now: if memory is a sense, what are the things it senses, and what are the constructs that are built up from those elements, layer by layer? All the stuff I have belabored above about the brain is like what Nicholas thought to himself as, “simple if interesting,” but where are the wolves? I’d like to tell you that the neuroscientists know, but they don’t. This new finding is too recent for scientists to be able yet to lay out all the implications for us. Actually that makes it a lot more fun because at this stage we get to speculate. Here is my speculation.

The layers in sight, the progression from edges, to lines, to orientations, to outlines, to shapes, to objects, to grandmother progress in memory processing like this: character, to location, to incident, to dramatic beat, to scene, to plot, to STORY.

We storytellers have always thought that people make sense of the world through stories, now the very circuits in our brains point to this as (almost) provably being the case. In the same way each human mind takes sensory data apart and actively, recursively, puts it back together, layer by layer, in ways that make sense to each individual, based, in large part, upon what we have seen before; in that same way each of us keeps on processing that material through another set of layers to end up with stories. We think in stories and story fragments.

Back to Burns

Although the processing steps are the same, human brains are unique. People are unique. We are not all the same inside. True, some of the filters in our brains are common from person to person. Facial expressions, for example, are universal. A blind person shows the same face of disgust as a sighted person and people of every culture recognize the meaning in that face. We each have a powerful filter that can tell in an instant (almost without fail) the gender of a person as s/he starts to speak. But what we do about seeing disgust or recognizing the gender of a speaker can be very different depending upon what life has taught our unconscious brain circuits to do with the input. The stories to which we match the world are different for every person. If you don’t have a good story to match what you see happening, you won’t understand it well. We storytellers need to fill as many brains with lots of diverse stories if those brains are going ever to have a clear view of the world.

And finally, back to the Judge

It is right for Judge Sotomayor to strive for objectivity. Even to aspire to impartiality is a triumph of human cognition.  Still, as she herself pointed out in the hearings, we must seek to know what is true, not what we would wish to be true. What we do know should drive us to fill the Supreme Court with as wide a range of wisely-directed human filters as possible: Justices who will see the same truth in diverse ways. A wise Latina should make a healthy contribution to that mix. Her mind will be filled with stories different from those of the other Justices. We can hope that the stories through which she sees the world will fill one of those pans in the scale of Lady Justice with something different and give our court a new balance.

Dr. Ralph Chatham is a former physicist and submariner, now retreaded as technology analyst and professional storyteller. Former chairman of Defense Science Board task forces on training superiority and training surprise he also managed research on the brain and human perception at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Co-awardee, with storyteller wife Margaret, of the National Storytelling Network Oracle Award, he conducted workshops twice at the National Storytelling Conference as well as presented a Sea Story Showcase. In 2007 he was an invited Virginia teller at the Williamsburg Storytelling festival