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The Journal of English Language and Literature , Vol.64, No.1, 3 ~ 25, 2018
Neuroscience and the Social Powers of Narrative: How Stories Configure Our Brains
Paul B. Armstrong
Stories are important instruments for configuring our cognitive and social worlds, but they do not necessarily make us more caring or less aggressive and self-involved. The ability to tell and follow a story requires cognitive capacities that are basic to the neurobiology of mental functioning, and so it would stand to reason that our experiences with stories would draw on and re-shape patterns of interaction that extend beyond the immediate experience of reading or listening to a narrative. Our intuitive, bodily-based ability to understand the actions of other people is fundamental to social relations, including the circuit between the representation of a configured action emplotted in a narrative and the reader’s or listener’s activity of following the story as we assimilate its patterns into the figures that shape our worlds. The activity of following a narrative can have a variety of beneficial or potentially noxious social consequences, either promoting the shared intentionality that neurobiologically oriented cultural anthropologists identify as a unique human capacity supporting culturally productive collaboration, or habitualizing and thereby naturalizing particular patterns of perception into rigid ideological constructs. The doubling of “me” and “not-me” in narrative acts of identification may promote the “we-intentionality” that makes socially beneficial cooperation possible, or it can set off mimetic conflict and various contagion effects. Neuroscience cannot predict what the social consequences of narrative will be, but it can identify the brain- and body-based processes through which (for better or worse) stories exercise social power.
Key Words
Narrative, neuroscience, reading, identification, empathy
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