Has this ever happened to you?
I was at the gym yesterday on the Stairmaster when I saw a woman I thought I recognized named Linda. Within a nanosecond, though, I realized it could not be her because she passed away this past Fall. But then my brain shifted instantly into remembering Linda’s wonderful life story – but it was only my memory, my narrative of her life, not the total narrative.
I’ll bet this happens to you, too – you see someone you think you recognize and it isn’t them, but then “pop”, you think about the person and a narrative about them forms in your mind.
Our individual brains house thousands of these types of personal narratives or stories. When combined with everyone else’s narratives, we can begin to feel like we are but one small wave in the ocean of humanity.
What’s the Little Mermaid Got to Do with It? Until recently I never thought much about why and how our brains create narratives. But then I listened to Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast about the Little Mermaid movie, and my curiosity took me down a fascinating rabbit hole I just had to explore.
While the main three-part series was full of interesting lessons about the Disney story model and a clever re-write/reenactment of the ending that included Jodi Foster, the part that intrigued me most was in the special follow-up podcast called Revisionist History Revisited – Extras from the Little Mermaid Series.
In this podcast Gladwell talks more deeply with Angus Fletcher about how both sides of our brain function in tandem to interpret stories that form our personal narrative and understanding of the world.
First, I can see why Gladwell likes talking with Fletcher – he is absolutely brilliant and can explain complicated topics clearly and enthusiastically. Fletcher is a neuro-scientist, who went on to get his PhD in literature. His niche is understanding how our brains process stories and how literature evolves over time as the writers-authors mirror the world itself.
Fletcher’s current book Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature, takes the reader down into a really deep, but fascinating, rabbit hole that is cognitive narratology.
A Few of My Lessons Learned so Far. I have not read Fletcher’s book yet, only small snippets including Shakespeare’s invention of the soliloquy. But in my journey to learn more about narratives or stories, here are a few quick lessons from the podcasts and other reading of Fletcher’s work.
- Only we humans create narratives. A narrative is a spoken or written description of connected events, a story. We humans are the only species on Earth that create narratives in our brains to make sense of the world. Our brains are not rational, so we create narratives that link causes together, establish sequences, and then form stories to help us understand effects. We also insert personal memories into our narratives, which we think are factual, but probably not.
- We each have our own narratives that we can share with others. Because each of us is unique, we develop and hold onto our own narrative about an event or situation. When we share our narratives with others, we likely influence their narrative of the same event in one way or another.
- We are drawn to narratives with people. As humans we like to have people in our narratives or stories. This is why we are attracted to stories with interesting characters as well as biographies. Also, have you noticed how we humanize or “anthropomorphize” the characters in animated films? We do this because it helps our brains, both children and adults, perceive and interact with the world.
- Right Brain. The right-side of our brain is the cautious, more pessimistic side and tries to keep us safe. When scary or bad things happen to us, it controls our fight or flight response. When really bad things happen, like the outbreak of the pandemic, we might catastrophize or imagine the worst possible outcome – I did this when COVID-19 broke-out.
- Left Brain. The left-side of our brain is more optimistic and kicks-in to relax and slow down our body’s response to the bad event. This is why we naturally turn to the news, books, or movies because these stories or narratives may help us short-circuit our panic. (Of course, this depends on what story or commentator we choose to watch or read, but we’ll save that narrative for another day.)
- Hope effect. Fletcher notes that positively crafted stories or narratives can have a “hope effect” in our left-brain, which is what we yearn for when we catastrophize – we “hope” for positive things to happen and we search for narratives that deliver this.
- Old fairytales and parables. Fletcher notes that many old classic parables and fairytales were written with “twists” to show that bad things can happen to good people, and, quite often, the wicked and evil characters win. The goals for those authors, which were supported by Rulers at the time, was often to scare the readers into good behavior. For example, in the original Hans Christian Andersen’s version of the Little Mermaid in 1836, she commits suicide in the end. (Can you even imagine today showing your 6 year-old this movie? I cannot.)
- Modern versions of fairytales and parables. Over time classic fairytales and parables were updated, many by Disney, to include different twists – twists where good people can have bad things happen, but with “poetic justice,” and the good can win in the end. In the Little Mermaid movie, for example, the wicked witch dies in the end and the Little Mermaid gets the legs she wanted and marries the charming prince, of course.
- All narratives or stories are flawed and need evolution. Each of the narratives or stories we have created in our brains is flawed. Most are reconstructions of old memories or learned information and those facts likely eroded or faded. Recognizing this before we share narratives or stories is important – we should constantly look to learn and evolve our narratives.
Leadership Lessons. Be careful sharing your narratives that need more evolution and may lack facts. If you are a credible leader, your narratives can spread like wildfire among your faithful team or followers and the results can be significant. Remember the importance of the “hope effect” when evolving your narrative about a difficult situation – this is the narrative your team or followers yearn for in that moment, but should not include unverified “facts.”
And, finally, include people or characters with humanlike characteristics in your narratives or stories because it will connect better with your team.
“This story is about a little wave, bobbing along in the ocean, having a grand old time. He’s enjoying the wind and the fresh air-until he notices the other waves in front of him, crashing against the shore. “My God, this is terrible,” the wave says. “Look what’s going to happen to me!”
Then along comes another wave. It sees the first wave, looking grim, and it says to him, “Why do you look so sad?”
The first wave says, “You don’t understand! We’re all going to crash! All of us waves are going to be nothing! Isn’t it terrible?”
The second wave says, “No, you don’t understand. You’re not a wave, you’re part of the ocean.”