Saturday, February 26, 2011

Red Riding Hood: Neurology, Narrative & Storytelling

By Mr. VI

Once upon a time, half-way back and a little off to one side; this is where the stories live. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin:

Stories are a form of communication, and they open doors. Doors to understandings and concepts that are unbound in time – their relevancies shift according to circumstances, environment and culture.

'To understand and remember stories, readers integrate their knowledge of the world with information in the text. Here we present functional neuroimaging evidence that neural systems track changes in the situation described by a story. Different brain regions track different aspects of a story, such as a character's physical location or current goals. Some of these regions mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities. These results support the view that readers understand a story by simulating the events in the story world and updating their simulation when features of that world change. ' - Psychological Science August 1, 2009 vol. 20 no. 8 989-999

Read that again.:

Some of these regions mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities.

Certain parts of your brain do not discern between 'reality' and 'fiction'. They simply create and act. Further:
'Verbal communication is a joint activity; however, speech production and comprehension have primarily been analyzed as independent processes within the boundaries of individual brains. Here, we applied fMRI to record brain activity from both speakers and listeners during natural verbal communication. We used the speaker's spatiotemporal brain activity to model listeners’ brain activity and found that the speaker's activity is spatially and temporally coupled with the listener's activity. This coupling vanishes when participants fail to communicate. Moreover, though on average the listener's brain activity mirrors the speaker's activity with a delay, we also find areas that exhibit predictive anticipatory responses. We connected the extent of neural coupling to a quantitative measure of story comprehension and find that the greater the anticipatory speaker–listener coupling, the greater the understanding. We argue that the observed alignment of production- and comprehension-based processes serves as a mechanism by which brains convey information.' -PNAS August 10, 2010 vol. 107 no. 32 14425-14430

Before there was written text or visual media such as film, stories were the primary method of cultural transmission:

'The speaker's activity is spatially and temporally coupled with the listener's activity'Let these two statements combine in your head for a moment; see what they point to – scientific evidence that a story can draw you in, change your perception and have an affect on you.

Suddenly the idea of the magic word doesn't seem too far fetched, does it? Immerse your listeners in a narrative and it becomes their reality. Expose them to it every day to reinforce it – this is the province of politicians and news anchors the world over.

If you go deep enough, the statement 'It's not real' loses potency. Of course it does, because your brain is modelling it 'as if', and some stories are extraordinarily old.

From a 2009 article in Britain's Daily Telegraph:
'A study by anthropologists has explored the origins of folk tales and traced the relationship between varients of the stories recounted by cultures around the world.
The researchers adopted techniques used by biologists to create the taxonomic tree of life, which shows how every species comes from a common ancestor.
Dr Jamie Tehrani, a cultural anthropologist at Durham University, studied 35 versions of Little Red Riding Hood from around the world.
Whilst the European version tells the story of a little girl who is tricked by a wolf masquerading as her grandmother, in the Chinese version a tiger replaces the wolf.
Contrary to the view that the tale originated in France shortly before Charles Perrault produced the first written version in the 17th century, Dr Tehrani found that the variants shared a common ancestor dating back more than 2,600 years.
The original ancestor is thought to be similar to another tale, The Wolf and the Kids, in which a wolf pretends to be a nanny goat to gain entry to a house full of young goats. '

Let's think about that:

Red Riding Hood is a modern iteration of a story that's older than the Christian religion. Its themes and characters have inhabited the human consciousness for longer than the dominant religious narrative on this planet of approximately 7.2 billion human beings.

Here at Modern Mythology, we've been talking werewolves, witches, zombie apocalypses and vampires lately. We've given nods to Twilight, to Buffy:The Vampire Slayer, True Blood and more; pop-culture narratives, flirtations with the shadowy Other – these are wildly successful in capturing money and attention.

Millions of people the world over have synchronised their brains in similar ways as they've been drawn into the narratives, and so I find myself wondering – is this actually modern at all? If our brains become spatially and temporally coupled with the tales, are we in fact moving in myth-time, sacred kairotic time?

If stories can be modelled on taxonomic lines, then familial structures apply – then each generation partakes of some of the others.

This year, we see a new iteration of Red Riding Hood – a film released in March, directed by Catherine Hardwicke, of Twilight movie fame no less.

As the second trailer for the new film states in blood red letters:


Gary Oldman's werewolf hunter Father Solomon makes much of what we've discussed about the terror of the monster, explicit in the trailer:

“The real killer lives here, in this village – it could be your neighbour.”

And even this current version owes much to an earlier predecessor – its structure and plot appears to be strongly influenced by the 1984 film The Company of Wolves.

“The worst kind of wolves are hairy on the inside and when they bite you, they drag you with them to hell.”

Contagion and the Outsider on the Inside – the deepest fear of any community. Is it any wonder that deception is often classed as morally reprehensible? Consider then what seemingly innocuous actions might somehow become imbued with a sense of the sinister if a strange affect occurs.

Imagine what would happen if that which forms groups - the act of communication, of coming together at a fundamental, even neural level – can be used to alter and manipulate individuals and the group itself?

Might this skill be viewed with suspicion - the very act of alternative narrative-construction becoming potentially morally dubious, and even synonymous with evil and falsehood? Even the notion of 'a fabrication' seems to imply something less than righteous; an ersatz version of events which gives the concept of myth its general pejorative sense, doesn't it?

And thus myth and mythmakers are at worst reviled as liars, frauds and mountebanks, and at best regarded as irrelevant and perhaps semi-entertaining because of their ability to make people feel emotion. Even spin-doctors and political speech-writers are somewhat derided by the general populace, and they and their siblings in the advertising industry are either ignored or derided as manipulative individuals whose sole goal is money – something which alienates them from the general populace.

Which means, as aliens, they often are perceived as faintly sinister – they operate in the murkier realms of the human psyche, away from the clear and rational. In a sense they are lunar and mercurial – both in the planetary correspondence sense, and the adjectival. They take the enlightened solar construction of language, born of the neo-cortex, and use it to produce movements in the deep emotive dark of the reptile brain.

And what's more they do this in such a way as to hijack the investment in the rational, non-mythic narratives – the same machinery that models 'reality' can be used to create and work with the mythic precisely because, as already noted, parts of the brain cannot tell the difference!

Due to this this investment in the rational narrative, so-called irrational or mythic narratives must be treated as second-class in modern society, because to do otherwise is to suggest that the dominant narrative may also be a made thing – a fabrication in the truest sense of the word.

This would, apparently, undermine an awful lot of important things.

Imagine, if only for a moment, what would happen if all narratives were held created equal. Imagine if Merlin stood shoulder to shoulder with Einstein, or Zeus went for a stroll with Michael Faraday and they met Thor and Benjamin Franklin chatting about super-heated plasma?

Those who prefer a singular narrative might say that such a moment would be a retrograde step, a movement back to the dark ages of superstition. Yet that moment exists every time we spin a tale and immerse ourselves within it – the data seems to confirm what we already know!

We speak spells, we weave worlds from songs and stories. If it's any kind of movement, it's not merely retrograde because it goes so far back as to be beyond any world we can conceive. It's so far back it's looped around and met the deep future, and the only way we can get to that space is to perform an act of wilful imagination.

Beyond superstition lies hyperstition; fictions that make themselves real in the place where the eldest ancestor meets the last child of mankind. Both are creatures so far beyond us that they are literally dreams, which means that every time you step into that dreamtime, you are with them as part of a community which is hard-wired into the very heart of our brains.

And if that isn't a damn good pedigree for a mythmaker -to be standing amongst wizards, sorcerers and shamans and storytellers and poets from the Before and After It All - then I don't know what is.

So think on that, as you browse this blog, as you cruise the corpus of the contributors here, and maybe muse on it if you go to see the latest spawn of Red Riding Hood at the cinema or next time you become engrossed in a story regardless of media.

Then feel yourself carried away by the spell, or admire the lay of the charm with a professional eye.

Because it doesn't matter which you do when it happens; every time you are drawn in, you're only being human, and that's a very interesting thing to be - however you look at it.

I'll leave you with a quote from the introductory voice-over to the wonderfully odd 1974 film Zardoz:

“In this tale, I am a fake god by occupation - and a magician, by inclination. Merlin is my hero! I am the puppet master. I manipulate many of the characters and events you will see. But I am invented, too, for your entertainment - and amusement. And you, poor creatures, who conjured you out of the clay? Is God in show business too?”

Be seeing you.

Pre-order a copy of The Immanence of Myth, published by Weaponized in July 2011.

1 comment:

  1. about the wolf thing
    I don't know if you're into japanimation but I was into that (until I became saturated with copies of copies of copies of copies of memes born from original stuff that was made decades ago)

    anyways to cut short, I remember this series, it was called WOLF'S RAIN and I have to admit I've tried many times to watch it until the end but somehow I never got to it, but I thought I'd tell you about it (don't ask me why)

    The interesting thing I recall about it is that it happens in an not so distant, rather quiet post-apocalyptic future in which there are almost no wild animals left and people have a hard time surviving in decaying cities.

    The protagonists in the series are mostly wolves who can take up human form and mingle among us for survival, and the few humans who wonder what the hell is going on. There's a dreaming girl trapped in a machine, for science, and an old prophecy about, how should I put it, immanentizing the eschaton?

    In any case, nobody knows this except for an old hunter who relies on old superstition (and a tame husky) to conclude that wolves are indeed living among us and they should be ruthlessly hunted down because they are dangerous.
    Also there is some kind of weird, discrete, aristocratic persona who is aware of all that and watches from above and pulls strings here and there to have things happen their way, when I think of it now I am reminded of Arthur Clarke's quote about how at some point scientific advances should be indistinguishable from magic...

    There's a clear metaphor about taming and what happens when you let yourself be tamed, what happens when you refuse, etc. They are radical characters, but most of them are in between or mostly unaware of that debate and try to make do, whatever the costs. Some are posing as leaders because they're afraid to be left alone and some aren't afraid to show they care, and...

    And then, there's this one pure wolf who's always refused to live among humans until a vision of Heaven forces him to at the beginning of the series, and by then tries rather arrogantly to remind his kind of their ancient belief, that wolves should strive to be wolves and nothing else, and find Heaven (and the One Special Girl who can help find it, half wolf, half human).

    As usual I find your articles relevant. They TALK.



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