Monday, December 3, 2012

Stories, Brains, Thought and Memory

Storytelling lives in the spaces between fiction and nonfiction. It peeps out of crevices and sniffs at the air, a blend of history and half-truths and details added in or played up to make things sound better. How many times have you heard a friend tell a story, then heard the same story weeks or months later with details dramatically altered or expanded? It’s part of human nature to embellish our stories, to play up the exciting or funny bits and play down the boring parts. We change the story for our audiences, paring and adding until the story is entirely different from the way things actually happened.

There’s a fascinating parallel with my research on thought and memory. Back in ye olden times of brain research, neurologists thought that long-term memory was fixed, irrevocable and unalterable. Once it had formed, it was there in the brain for good. But recently, as I’ve read and regurgitated, new studies have seemed to say that memory is actually plastic, as subject to retelling and reshaping as any one of our stories. We edit what we saw or knew, unconsciously or consciously, every time we access that memory. “If you take that to the extreme, your memory is only as good as the last time you accessed it,” said one researcher (NOT AN EXACT QUOTE, JUST A “TO THE BEST OF MY RECOLLECTION”).

Eerily similar, no? Stories and memories function the same way, one anecdotally and the other neurologically. Which raises fascinating questions in itself. Storytelling is one of the oldest forms of human experience; it’s been around, as far as anyone can determine, for what must have been tens of thousands of years. Oral traditions were what legends were made of, long before the invention of writing. Could it be that our brains are actually hardwired in a storytelling manner? Is it possible that telling stories is, neurologically and practically, a fundamental part of the human experience?

If so—and I hope so—I think that’s absolutely wonderful. It’s fascinating and amazing. It lends now emphasis to the entire world of stories that everybody knows is out there, that everybody experiences but few are lucky enough to grasp more than a small part of. If what I just wrote makes sense, it’s been around since the phrase ‘being human’ meant anything, and that’s a mind-blowing concept.

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