We Are Hardwired to Interpret the World Through Stories: Cracked - Complications Ensue
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Monday, August 06, 2012

David Wong, writing in CRACKED, of all places, has a goofy but surprisingly true feature on "5 Ways You Don't Realize Movies Are Controlling Your Brain." They, too, agree that we are hardwired to tell, and remember, stories:
Thousands of years ago, when your ancestors were living in tribes and hunting gazelles for food, nobody knew how to read. Even if they could, paper wasn't a thing, parchment was rare and precious. They had no written historical records, they had no educational system that could devote years to teaching history to the kids.

This was a problem. Once humans started forming civilizations, the guys in charge didn't just need the next generation of children to know how to fish and hunt, they needed citizens who would fall in line and fight for the tribe. That meant the kids needed to understand the big picture: why preserving the tribe is important, why we hate the tribe across the river, why our tribe is better than that tribe, why it's important to go off and fight in the next war no matter how scared you are.

Now, to do this, they could either A) bore the kids to death with a years-long recounting of the history of the tribe, which nobody has probably written down anyway or B) tell them a cool story. They could tell the thrilling tale of Kolgor the Valiant who, when the evil neighboring tribe came to slay all of the women and children, stood alone and fought bravely through the night, with four arrows in his chest, until the enemy retreated in terror. You want to be like Kolgor, don't you, little one? Otherwise, he will have died in vain.

Clearly "B" is the one that is going to stick in the kid's brain. It doesn't matter that the story is either fiction or grossly exaggerated -- it gets the job done, it makes the kid conform to be the kind of citizen the tribe needs him to be. This isn't necessarily a bad thing -- your tribe may very well be better than the one across the river, your real history is probably full of real heroes whose sacrifices were just as important as, if less romantic than, Kolgor the Valiant's. The tribe didn't go with the fictional version because they were liars, they went with it because it was the only way for the "truth" to survive.
With consequences for how we fail to process things that don't fit easily into stories:
That's why, to this day, we're still trying to figure out who "caused" the economic collapse, as if we'll find a cabal of a dozen shady bankers in a room who made off with all our money, rather than a flawed system that millions of investors and consumers drove into the ditch because of a steadfast refusal to think five minutes into the future. Look at the last few wars again -- we can't get past the idea that terrorism will end if we just blow the shit out of the bad guys. Why? Because that's the way it works in the movies. In Star Wars, when the Emperor died, all evil died with him. The same with Sauron, and Voldemort. If we kill/imprison all the drug kingpins, the drugs will go away. Right? Guys?

You can find this in your personal life, too. If something goes wrong at the office, somebody has to get blamed. Everyone goes into ass-covering mode, because they know the bosses will need a villain in their story. When you take on some personal project (a new job, losing weight, whatever), you expect the same three-act structure that you'd see in a movie (see problem, take it on, experience your darkest moment, eventually triumph), and you get depressed when it doesn't happen (that "triumph" part often never shows up). Why are people always so obsessed with the apocalypse? Because every story has an ending, and the idea that the human "story" can just drag on forever, aimlessly, never progressing toward any particular goal, is just unimaginable. We can't process it.
And the moral, such as it is:
So, yes, for the fucking love of God, movies matter. TV shows matter. Novels matter. They shape the lens through which you see the world. The very fact that you don't think they matter, that even right now you're still resisting the idea, is what makes all of this so dangerous to you -- you watch movies so you can turn off your brain and let your guard down. But while your guard is down, you're letting them jack directly into that part of your brain that creates your mythology. If you think about it, it's an awesome responsibility on the part of the storyteller. And you're comfortable handing that responsibility over to Michael Bay.

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2 Comments:

There's a lot there that I've often pondered upon myself. One other thing I sometimes wonder about; how has the infusion of Capitalism into modern storytelling changed our cultural mythmaking process? When the stories that get told are decided mostly by what sells the most tickets, does that drive our mythology down toward a cultural lowest-common-denominator? Or is it just a variation on how it's always worked -- where the stories that best excite the public imagination are the ones that endure?

By Blogger JoshM, at 10:14 AM  

To me stories are more about moral choices and triumphs than physical achievements. So the 'failure' of the plot(physical goals) is not necessarily aligned with the failure of the spirit e.g. The end in Rocky.

By Blogger Phillip, at 7:16 PM  

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