Thursday, January 29, 2009

Our Brain is Porgrammed by and for metaphor.

I am now retired from 40 years of psych0therapy and family therapy. It took me many years to discover that my excellent clinical training and later continuing education in multiple interventions modalities did not work well for many clients. Only in the last fifteen years, beginning in the late 1980s, did I discover the power of story to help clients change.

I learned only slowly that some were so caught up into the drama they were living and self-creating, that no rational approach could work. Like the parables of Jesus, only when I caught or created a story that enabled them to visualize another, better way, better outcome, could they choose to change. What a wake up call for an ancient and wounded warrior of tens of thousands of hours of professional listening.

Now we are in the presence of a stunning discovery of how the mind works that few psychologist have paid much if any attention to. Furthermore, this understanding of the workings of the mind has not yet reached many other fields, education and speech language pathology to name simply two.

It is as if we have had a new Galileo discovering that the earth is not the center of the universe, or a anew Einstein discovering than the universe is not static but expanding. Only a few have paid attention. Most professional care-givers and those who deal with the science of the mind seem oblivious of this new discovery of how the mind actually works. We are so inside the box, the bubble of our world view, that we cannot escape our previous assumptions.

The stunning discovery is that our brain is hard-wired for metaphor and story. Language is not simply the software program we learn to use through socialization and education. Language is not simply software. The human mind actually understands itself through metaphor and story. I was gently teasing my granddaughter, just turned five, about how much she was enjoying the chocolate milk shake I just bought her. She said, “Poppy, chocolate is my heart.� Now since there are no ch0coholics in her family, certainly not her mother, that was her how creation.

George Lakoff has discovered that the way we frame things to ourselves is through metaphors. That metaphors are inherent, part of the structure of the brain, the way the brain actually works. Take the seven great plots of story universally found by Christopher booker in his life work compendium, found across all culture. This suggests, astonishingly, that the brain is hardwired for stories of Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth and Transformation.

Lakoff’s work suggests that there are not simply stories found out there that fascinate us. Rather our brain is already wired for these plots and crave the narrative content to make them come to life. If we are hard-wired for stories there must be a deep human need, evolutionary speaking, for adaptation and survival for the power of story. Yet in our schools and colleges, the narrative tradition have gotten short shrift in favor of technology and hard science. Perhaps the moral chaos of our times, with the immense dark challenges our world faces is due, in part of the absence of value options we learn through literature.

If our brain, as it seems to be, has a folk tale set that insists there is only one remedy to a particular problem, then we can never even entertained another possibility. One singular “God-view� can be rightly imposed on all others.

It is not even sufficient to say that we are hard-wired for story. It is more accurate to say that the human mind best understands itself through metaphor and story. That is, this is simply the way the mind works. Think of any of my groups of K through 3,4, 5. When I ask them if they are ready for a scarey story, every single hand shoots up immediately. That, I propose, is not accidental. It is so immediate and pervasive, that it shows how the brain works. There is inherent program that needs narrative to help what, fee; safe. conceive options, whatever, does not mater. The point is that the craving for story narrative to fit that inherent need to Overcome the Monster is there already. Waiting for the story that can deeply satisfy that need. And if it is not scary enough, one of them is sure to tell you. Or beg for more.

Does this change our view of Spellbinder storytelling? I suggest that it actually does. We are not engaged in something merely entertaining. What we are contributing is a very vital part of the emotional, cognitive, and social development of children, and one, I suggest, that we can hardly over-estimate.

It is a real change in our view of ourselves to recognize that our brains are pre-programmed not only to need story to explain ourselves to ourselves, but also is ready to find and use parables for the same purpose. Lakoff shows that language is not simply something external that we learn to use, but that the strictures are already present ready to work.

This understanding can change the way we view education and any form of human change. My review of the literature suggests that few are paying attention. Because our brain works by means of metaphor, therefore we need narratives, metaphors, stories and parables to grow, to learn, to make value decisions and solve problems. We not only love stories, we crave stories to understand ourselves, to cope with and manage ourselves and our relationships. Voila!

Bring on the Spellbinders!

Paschal Baute. Ed. D.
Lexington, Ky

Metaphors We Live by, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson
The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. Christopher Booker.
See my website blog for research that went into this article.


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