Healing Tales, by Iona Miller
"To heal the symptom, we must heal the person, and to heal the person we must first heal the story in which the person has imagined himself." --James Hillman
The Healing Power of Narrative History
Emphasis in the West, has particularly been on the linear, orderly unfolding of life and the emphasis on the individual journey, the self in relation to society. Return to progress, activity, productivity, perseverance, achievement, determination, goal-orientation, and self-reliance are emphasized in our cultural ideologies in the face of uncertainty, loss of hope, and the anticipation of death. Yet our lives clearly don't follow predictable, coherent, linear paths.
This paradigm is not as pronounced in cultures which have a distinctively cyclic worldview, and maintain more integrated family and community lives where collective human values are prioritized. This is evident for example in Canada and Europe where healthcare is not treated solely as an individual responsibility. This sociopolitical aspect permeates healthcare in the U.S. which is the only country in the world to include its receipts in the Gross National Product.
Treatment in the health field starts with the assumption that clinical treatment of disease is a cost-efficient way to maintain health. In the past centuries, public health practices eliminated many diseases at a fraction of the cost possible with clinical treatment, so more holistic or sociological approaches have developed. Clinical medicine, with its emphasis on curing disease has gradually replaced the less remunerative public health emphasis, since it is much more lucrative and prestigious.
The medical ecology of the 1950s, focusing on disease and individuals, was based in a simplistic environmental stimulus-response model. It virtually eliminated scourges like polio, tuberculosis, many bacterial infections, and smallpox, at least in the US. But it failed to cope with the global spread of capitalism and its impact on health and societal development, which require more sophisticated ecological concepts. Critiques of biocultural paradigms, medical ecology, and medical anthropology need a common field of discourse, such as political ecology, but that is beyond the scope of this work, and the political power of our public health centers for disease control.
Our point is that our healing arc in the west is conditioned by the mandates of our Puritan work ethic, the underlying ethos of the U.S. Clearly this productivity bias goes hand in glove with our mechanistic, Cartesian upbringings -- we are trained from birth to notice and value certain things over others.
The history of Western civilization contains a fundamental theme of dissociation (Ross). It is manifest in the Cartesian treatent philosophy which splits mind from body. Its reductionist aspect is physically embodied in medical science; its dissociated romantic side in psychology. We are caught in the social web of dualism, dissociation, and projection. Curiously, the Western mind projects the products of its own function onto the unconscious and mistakenly concludes they originate there. Reductionism denies the reality of the psyche.
Contemporary medicine projects its vision of a mechanistic function onto the body and physical universe. Psychology's philosophical doctrine sentimentalizes the natural world and projects abnormal ideas onto the body and the "unconscious" mind. But is it unconscious, or merely dissociated? Culturally divorced from the body, of course the mind becomes dissociated. We need a spiritual return to a dynamic unified perspective.
Dissociation of mind and body was followed by fragmentation of social function.
Looking at how we respond to disruption helps reveal our core tenets, and how deeply we are embedded in the cultural contours of our society. Can we have value as human beings, or must we force ourselves to respond as 'human doings' to maintain our self image and esteem, because our culture demands it?
Narratives, both personal and collective, arise from the desire to have life display coherence, integrity, fullness, disclosure, and closure. Even psychotherapy is based in part on the premise that reshaping or reframing events lends a sense of coherence where there has been chaos. Change the history or reframe the story and the attitudes associated with it automatically change.
The development of these narratives is preeminently, a cultural process. Even though the premise is unspoken, we have come to tacitly expect a "beginning, middle, and end" to our personal stories. Most of us would like to imagine an optimistic end to our stories, one that provides meaning and purpose for our lives...a "good" ending, if not always a "happy" one.
We all witnessed this, both at the personal and national level, even worldwide, in the aftermath of the 9/11 disaster. Part of the healing process commenced immediately with the constant telling of tales to one another -- how we were involved, or changed, and further impacted by this graphic demonstration that the sanctity of our native soil would never be the same again. The psychological and cultural healing became as important as the practical clean up and strategic reactions.
The distressed body plays the largest role in our response to and the impact of chaos. Stress alone can affect us even when we are not emotionally or personally connected to an event. Sometimes empathic viewing of an event, and the personal associations and issues it brings up, such as existential safety and trust, fear and personal pain can be enough to mobilize the body for the fight-flight response. A wake of psychophysical and immunological changes follow, and persist, depending on the degree of involvement.
Our understanding of ourselves and the world begins with our reliance on the orderly functioning of our body. Our expectations in this regard are somewhat conditioned in childhood by our own experiences and those of our close caregivers. A relatively uneventful childhood may lead to an exaggerated sense of strength, immortality, undefeatability; while exposure to catastrophic or chronic illness may lead to a deep sense of vulnerability, even weakness. We can't know just how strong or resilient we are until we are challenged to mobilize our inner reserves and resources.
We carry our histories, as well as the whole history of humanity, with us into the present through our bodies. Our feelings and thoughts become manifest in our physical structure. The past is "sedimented" in the body -- that is, it is embodied. Our bodies' sensory apparatus is the only way we experience the larger world. It is the medium through which we meet and respond to that world, feeling its reciprocal impact on us. Thus our symptoms can reflect our cultural as well as personal attitudes.
We may ignore, diminish, or hide symptoms, use specific kinds of supplements, folk or new age remedies attempting to control or minimize our symptoms. We may delay seeking treatment to avoid the fear of being "abnormal," or perceived in that way by others. There is a pervasive feeling that most of us don't want to become a "burden" to our loved ones.
Thus, the body is foundational in the emergence of culture and cultural norms. Its as if a deep part of us remembers the hunter-gatherer days of humanity when the infirm were simply left to fend for themselves or die when they could not "keep up." Culture essentially began with shamanic healing, lore, and ritual burials. We can presume teaching stories were used to bind the tribe together.
We are also able to ground our resistance to the power of cultural norms in bodily experience. Our resistance is tempered by our bodily knowledge as we listen to our bodies in deciding whether care is necessary. Failure to listen for symptoms, or to gauge them accurately, can have serious and even fatal medical consequences. Thus, bodily knowledge informs our actions, including resistance to the status quo. Part of that status quo is the availability of heathcare we feel is simpatico with our worldview and sense of self -- our view of the healing professions -- physical, emotional and spiritual.
Often in our illnesses, breakdowns, or grief, we seek a new norm for ourselves in larger social collectives, such as support groups or spiritual groups. It is comforting to be around others who share the same infirmities and issues, and are navigating the same turbulent waters.
We draw succor from knowing we are sharing the same passages, and can share information, resources, solutions and benefit from the experience of those who have gone before. By telling our sad tales, or tales of recovery over and over, we project images of ourselves into the world through performance. This is actually a form of creativity which helps the healing process, and creates resilience in the general community.
Order and Chaos
Our notions of order and chaos change as we attempt to come to grips with disruption in our lives. We reexamine the given ideas of our culture when we become marginalized from the bustling demands of daily life. When our life circumstances don't fit with our preconceived image we have to look at the disjunction, the discrepancies, the disconnections, and make adjustments.
Often efforts to create coherence and provide closure to situations are at odds with notions of order shaped by complex cultural dynamics. Where we find support for this reassessment can make a profound difference in our ability to move beyond the problem phase toward healthy choices, solutions, and resolutions. Depending on the nature of the disruption, various cultural ideals of, for example, health, womanhood, manhood, parenthood, independence, and the aging process emerge.
When our stability is threatened, we begin to wonder if the unspoken "end" of our personal story will take a different tack. Yet, stability is individually defined. We can adjust to a diminished capacity without feeling that our sense of self-identity is diminished, but it may be a big part of the healing struggle. Our culture has programmed us to derive a great part of our sense of self from doing, rather than being. Ideally, even when infirm, we can partake of an active life of the spirit.
Thus, our value is wrapped up in what we are able to do in the world, rather than simply being valued for existing, for our basic humanity. When challenged, we learn there are often a wide variety of other ways we can contribute. Our attitudes are a good predictor of how we will respond to challenge. A good attitude, even though it may not cure, supports the healing of the bodymind since it doesn't put an extra stress load on it.
Our self-narratives help us make "sense" of our ordeals, the gauntlet we are forced to run by the impact of disruption. What is most striking about the portrait of issues that emerge when we wrestle with disruption is that in the U.S. at least, core beliefs persist despite ongoing social change.
Even if we have been progressive, illness may cause us to regress to the values of our youth, when we felt more helpless, less independent. Of course, there is variation according to ethnicity, gender, class, and age. Disruption throws these cultural distinctions into high relief so the underlying core foundations and unspoken beliefs become more visible.
Most people strive to be somewhat "normal." But the realities of life can carry us far afield from that imaginal ideal. We all have compelling concerns and precious stakes to defend and sustain, including relationships and life goals and dreams that guide and sustain us.
Yet events occur continuously that do not fit in with our vision of how life should be. When they strike like a bolt from the blue, what we do affects our individualized view of the world. We may present a brave front to the world, and yet be quaking internally with fear and pain. To be authentic, to be congruent in our self-expression we need to make our inner truth part of our story.
Disruption makes us feel different from others, due to our existential position, traumas, or reactions. Once we feel marginalized we begin to define ourselves in terms of difference rather than normalcy. Over and over the conflict arises between the desire for normalcy and the blunt acknowledgment of difference playing over and over in one's experience and consciousness.
Our abilities to care for our selves in terms of pre-planning and response patterns effect those around us. Disruption makes us feel different from others and can render social relationships uncomfortable and even cumbersome. Our narratives repeatedly attest to the emotional pain that difference causes and to the struggle to reduce or eliminate that sense of difference from others.
On the other hand, some people exploit their infirmities for the social payoffs of what are called "secondary gains," in medicine and psychotherapy. This survival strategy may or may not manifest the desired manipulation, and can often backfire on the person, who may be totally unconscious of this goal.
The stories we construct surrounding the disruption of our lives are essentially moral accounts. This is virtually the only way we can endow our reality with so much meaning. But, clearly, bad things happen to "good" people. We call this tragic or say it's a "tragedy."
When thrust into a different lifestyle, into an experience of otherness, we seem to require a moralizing antidote to mediate the experience of the radical shift in self-image. This experience has been canonized in the dramatic form called tragedy, which devolved from ancient Greek rituals of Dionysus, god of chaos and disruption and Apollo, traditionally the god of light and healing, but also disease.
We struggle in the moral dimension rethinking our values under assault from chaotic disruption. Thus, our faith in ourselves, or perhaps a higher power is either confirmed or disavowed. Some of that resistance gets directed at the status quo. At this point many people rebel against the limitations of conventional treatment and seek alternative treatments or healing for the soul and spirit, as well as the body.  Our internal dialogue on differences and normalcy is riddled with metaphors that reveal cultural foundations.
Soul Support: Healing the Disordered Bodymind
"The gods have become diseases; Zeus no longer rules Olympus, but the solar plexus, and produces curious specimens for the doctor's consulting room." --C. G. Jung (1929, p. 37)
Carl Jung believed the soul or psyche to be autonomous from ego consciousness. Soul, according to Jung, is a manifestation of the collective unconscious: the deepest substrate upon which existence rests. Its function is to animate life. In Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious , Jung writes: "Soul is the living thing in man, that which lives of itself and causes life â€¦.She is full of snares and traps, in order that man should fail, should reach the earth, entangle himself there, and stay caught, so that life should be livedâ€¦"
The voice with which Ivan Ilych dialogues, is that of soul. It is soul, the objective psyche, which inquires in the midst of one’s suffering "What is it you want?" Symptoms are generally believed to derive from an external event, or an internal neuro-biological imbalance. From this ego perspective, symptoms are in us because that is the way they are experienced. Symptoms are experienced as an alien other.
When our mental or physical health is suddenly disrupted, we are thrown into chaos. It can be likened to a "descent into hell," "dark night of the soul," "being dragged over the coals," a "bad dream," or "nightmare," "limbo," "falling into a black hole," "reaping the whirlwind," or a "brush with death." The chaos and disorientation is reflected most strongly in our hopes and dreams as we attempt to cope with onslaught of our body, mind and spirit.
It splits our perception into two separate realities -- "before and after," -- the known world of normalcy before catastrophe or disease struck, and the chaotic world of the dis-ease, mental or physical. All sources of disruption disturb the psyche. Our spirit is assaulted by the agents of chaos. We can feel let down or even betrayed by our bodies. It raises a host of issues, such as lasting, leaving, longevity, mortality, repetition, being left behind, compassion, isolation, abandonment, marginalization, etc.
The spontaneous human activity of creating healing narratives to restore order is the basis of psychotherapy, particularly talk therapy. However, the healing journey and milestones of all therapies, including biomedicine and energy medicine, are congealed in the narratives we produce spontaneously about our life journeys. The life journey is a core metaphor. We don't need to formally enter therapy for its directive power to come into play.
It is a guiding force. We can creatively employ this natural process to mobilize healing by helping the process along in an integrated way. We can address the needs of the whole person: the bodymind, with its need to restore a sense of emotional balance, order and meaning, and the moral dimension with its need for spirituality.
All human actions are worked out to the end, passing through the unforeseeable contingencies of a "world we never made." The conscious purpose with which we start is redefined after each unforeseen contingency is sufferance. At the end, in the light of hindsight, we see the truth of what we have been doing.
When we experience illness and health conditions requiring considerable medical intervention, we monitor and discuss our bodies. How we talk about them tells us much about the nature of embodiment and how cultural particulars influence the way we experience embodiment. How we talk also tells us much about the portrayal of bodily experience.
There is a connection between how people talk about their bodies -- bodily concerns and bodily experience -- and how they experience them. This action is a kind of natural history of the psyche's life. But action does not means deeds, event, or physical activity but the motivation from which deeds spring. The action this art seeks is to depict a psychic energy working outwards, the focus or movements of the psyche toward what seems good to it at the moment -- a movement-of-spirit.
A Moving Experience
Action is active: the psyche perceives something it wants, and "moves" toward it. Passion, or pathos (suffering) is passive. The psyche suffers something it cannot control or understand, and "is moved" thereby. But in our human experience action and passion are always combined.
There is no movement of the psyche which is pure passion -- totally devoid of purpose and understanding. There is no human action without its component of ill-defined feeling or emotion. Pain, lust, terror, grief, and passion continually arises out of the more formless pathos or affectivity. Purpose arises out of the passion of fear, and is given form through the continued effort to see how the common purpose might still be achieved.
When disruption occurs, the temporary or permanent destruction of our sense of "fit" with society calls into question our personhood, sense of identity, and sense of normalcy. It can strike at every aspect of life from self-image, to sexuality, life plans, even ability to get a good night's sleep.
Usually the theme is loss, but simultaneously many aspects of the experience may give life meaning, distressing though it is. Biomedical diagnoses shape our discourses on normalcy. Diagnosis makes concrete what was previously indeterminate. It creates the goal and desire to return to normal, which is also shaped by societal discourse.
Like good biographers, we instinctively edit our life stories into an "organic" form - the plot.
The purpose of plot-making is to represent one 'complete action.' We don't tell everything about ourselves, even to ourselves. We choose only those salient features which lead toward a satisfactory culmination, in the short or long term. We are being selective, rather than secretive, to lend coherence to our tale. It gives us a sense of greater consistency, and introjects a cultural or universal, as well as personal angle. Plot unfoldment is the unifying element of narrative.
Plot is the first principle, the very soul of tragedy. Plot-making forms story into an actual tragedy, bringing potential for catharsis or purging of the emotions of fear and pity. Purging us of our emotions helps us reconcile with our fate, because we come to understand it as the universal human lot.
Catharsis or purgation can mean either the cleansing of the body (a medical term) or the cleansing of the spirit (a spiritual term). It is a movement of spirit from ignorance to insight. A complete action passes through the modes of purpose and pathos to the final perception. Both action and character are formed of our ill-defined feelings and emotions, appetites and fears, but this element of pathos is essential.
Thus, tragedy speaks to the mind, soul, and spirit. The "end" of tragedy is the purgation of passion, and the embodiment of a universal truth, analogous to the purposes of spiritual ritual. Paradoxically, tragedy gives us pleasure, even with its images of conflict, terror and suffering.
Perhaps it is the promise of catharsis, which may or may not come, in an unpredictable real life tragedy. Poetry expresses the universal, but our histories express the particular. The appeal of tragedy is, in the last analysis inexplicable, rooted as it is in our instincts and mysterious human nature.
Our instinctive editing is in fact driven by cultural considerations about disruption, as its ritualistic aspect implies. Thus, the same topics emerge over and over again in stories by those from the same cultural background. They reveal what we consider most meaningful about our lives. Do we find ourselves sympathetic or unsympathetic characters in our own story? Or, do we or others judge us as simply pathetic ? Some themes remain dominant, while others recede into the background until another chaotic disruption brings them to the fore again.
Life Themes and Memes
Themes are cultural "memes" which also help us make sense of our experiences. Our stories may be highly influenced by a complex dynamic interaction of memes (cultural "viruses"), mirror neurons (biological capacity for imitation), poetics (emergent dramatic expression), and embodiment (embodied distress or normalcy).
The theory of memes describes them as a form of information that sculpts minds and culture as they spread through imitation. Memes are likened to informational "viruses," and the DNA of human society because of their ability to propagate. Because of their ability to replicate themselves, they influence every aspect of mind, behavior and culture.
Memes are the cultural equivalent of DNA. This notion undermines some of our cherished illusions about individuality. We are neither the slaves of our genes nor rational free agents creating culture, art, science and technology for our own happiness.
Blackmore includes among memes the stories, songs, habits, skills, inventions and ways of doing thing that we copy from person to person, including medical memes. Memes are to our minds what genes are to our bodies. Perhaps memes also evolve. Our culture has generated a host of medical memes about health, illness, and treatment. Our own stories morph over time varying with the meaning they embody.
[Richard Dawkins, "father" of meme theory] described the basic principle of Darwinian evolution in terms of three general processesâ€”when information is copied again and again, with variations and with selection of some variants over others, you must get evolution. That is, over many iterations of this cycle, the population of surviving copies will gradually acquire new properties that tend to make them better suited to succeeding in the ongoing competition to produce progeny. Although the cycle is mindless, it generates design out of chaos. (Blackmore, 2000).
Human life is permeated through and through with memes and their consequences. Everything we have learned by imitation from someone else is a meme. But we must be clear what is meant by the word 'imitation' because our whole understanding of memetics depends on it.
Dawkins said that memes jump from "brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation." If in doubt, remember that something must have been copied. Aristotle named this principle of imitation the first tenet of his description of the mimetic arts, essentially the varieties of storytelling, chiefly epic, comedy, and tragedy:
"And with regard to each of the poetic forms, I wish to consider what characteristic effect it has, how its plots should be constructed if the poet's work is to be good, and also the number and nature of the parts of which the form consists. . .Let us then follow the order of nature and begin by taking up that which is by nature first: the basic principle of imitation. " [Second comes] "differences based on the means of imitation." (Aristotle's Poetics).
This dramatic imitation takes place in narrative, action, and manner and mode of presentation. But when Aristotle speaks of imitating action, he does not mean mere physical activity but a movement-of-spirit. By imitation, he does not mean superficial copying, but the representation of countless forms which the life of the human spirit may take through the arts.
This, peripherally, is why art therapy in all media is so effective as an aid to psychophysical recovery. It helps us express what we cannot put into words. Many of the arts combine imitation with harmony and rhythm. And so do our dramatic tales of our life journeys.
Ain't It Awful?
Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is whole and compete in itself and of a certain magnitude. As a whole thing it has a beginning, middle, and end. Differences arise from the object of imitation and the manner of imitating. The most important aspect of drama is the organization of the events -- the plot. It is in action that happiness and unhappiness are found. Everything that is passed from person to person through imitation is a meme. This is also revealed in the emergent style of drama, as described holistically by Aristotle:
"Just as in the other mimetic arts an imitation is unified when it is in the imitation of a unified object, so in poetry the plot, since it is imitation of an action, must be the imitation of a unified action comprising a whole; and the events which the parts of the plot must be so organized that if any one of them is displayed or taken away, the whole will be shaken and put out of joint; for if the presence or absence of a thing makes no discernible difference, that thing is not part of the whole. . . [P]ossbility means credibility; until something happens we remain uncertain of its possibility, but what has happened obviously is possible since if impossible, it would not have happened. . .It is clear then that the poet should be a maker of plots more than a maker of verses, in that he is poet by virtue of his imitation and he imitates actions. . .It is not only an action complete in itself that tragedy represents; it also represents incidents involving pity and fear, and such incidents are most effective when they come unexpectedly and yet occur in a causal sequence in which one thing leads to another...things that actually do happen by accident seem most marvelous when they appear to be intention...It is hard to believe that such things happen without design."
Aristotle goes on to describe elements of drama that seem reminiscent of chaotic dynamics. Some plots are simple; some are complex. In simple action, changes of fortune take place without a reversal or recognition. In complex plots, the change of fortune involves a recognition or a reversal or ideally both.
The action of perceiving, passing from ignorance to knowledge, is near the heart of tragedy. Pathos or suffering is also an essential element. The recognition and reversal follow from the preceding events toward a probabilistic outcome, but with a vast difference between "following from" (emergence) and "following after" (linearity).
Complications are influential events which happen outside of the range of the story, while the denouement or unraveling is the final turn of events, for good or ill, before the end of the story. In medical treatment, for example, the reveal comes after treatment with the prognosis.
Reversal is a change from one state of affairs to its exact opposite; recognition is a change from ignorance to knowledge. The best form of recognition is that accompanied by a reversal and springing from the events themselves. The three primary elements of tragedy include reversal, recognition and suffering (pathos), reflecting critical problems and their solutions. In drama and life, tragedy is never about one isolated character:
"Neuroscientists are finding that much brain function is an interpersonal phenomenon. Not only do brain structures and functions provide the means by which we connect with and make sense of one another, but through relational experience, parts of the brain, literally, grow. In fact, the brain, as we know it, is inconceivable without social relationships: “The traditional idea of the brain has been the single-skull viewâ€”an organ encased inside us whose functioning is determined primarily by our inborn biology,” says Siegel, who coined the term interpersonal neurobiology to describe how advances in research have created a conceptual bridge among biology, attachment research, development psychology, brain science, and systems theory. “But we survived as a species not so much because of our physical brawn, but due to our interpersonal capacity. More and more, we’re realizing that evolution has designed our brains to be shaped by our interpersonal environment.”
Siegel posits a “multiskull view” of the brain, a way of understanding that brain processes take place through people’s interactions with one another. “The best way to define the mind is as the flow of energy and information,” says Siegel. “That flow can happen between neurons in a person’s skull, as well as between two people. Without being reductionistic, the cultural transmission of meaning ultimately comes down to a neuronal process.”
A securely attached child develops the neural pathways for resilience. Even when his or her parents are upset or impatient, his or her brain’s wiring “knows” from experience that they won’t abandon her and will reconnect after the storm has passed. Kids who don’t get this kind of back-and-forth parental attention may grow up more or less at the mercy of their emotions, unable to manage their rage and aggression, calm their anxieties, console themselves in their sadness, or tolerate high levels of pleasure and excitement.
Furthermore, they’ll be more likely to suffer social disconnection: unable to interpret others’ social cues because of deficits in their orbitofrontal cortices, they’ll have trouble joining in the rhythm of relational exchange. In short, from the beginning, relating isn’t a discretionary activity, something we can do without. As an organ, the brain must make human connections to develop a healthy, working mind, (Wylie and Simon).
Narrative is fundamental to brain function and attachment. There’s no greater example of the brain’s innate powers of self-creation than the universal human practice of constructing narratives, of drawing from the raw stuff of experience the stories with which our brain explains itselfâ€”to itself and other brains. “Storytelling is central to every culture, and when you find that kind of universality, you know it’s not just social learning but reflects something deep-seated in our genes,” says Siegel, who believes that the neurological subplot, if you will, of the well-made story involves the integration of the brain’s left and right hemispheres. “Coherent stories are an integration of the left hemisphere’s drive to tell a logical story about events and the right brain’s ability to grasp emotionally the mental processes of the people in those events,” he adds. Storytelling also relies on the prefrontal short- and long-term memory systems and the cerebellumâ€”once thought to coordinate only physical movement, but now believed to coordinate different emotional and cognitive functions. Storytelling involves planning, sequencing ideas, using language coherently, shifting attention, and interacting appropriately with other people. The ability to tell a good story is a measure of mental health and a well-functioning brain.
The most striking empirical indication of storytelling’s role in mental health and development may come from a series of studies involving the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI), a research protocol that assesses the level of relational attachment. In the mid-1990s, Mary Main, the primary researcher, now at University of California, Berkeley, and then graduate student Ruth Goldwyn, found that a child’s attachment to a parent could be better predicted by listening to the how a pregnant couple related their autobiographical narrative than by measures of intellectual function, personality assessment, or socioeconomic status. A year after the initial assessment, children’s attachment to their parent could be predicted with 75 percent accuracy, based on the AAI assessment. The idea is that by measuring the “coherence” with which people describe their life storyâ€”its emotional content, plausibility, completeness, relevance, brevity, and clarityâ€”you can determine how securely bonded their child will be. Additional research suggests that secure children will then develop the capacity for coherent narrative themselvesâ€”good narrative is, literally, something their parents can pass on.
Tell Me A Story
Why is storytelling paramount? Stories link the factual to the emotional, the specific to the universal, the past to the present. A child hearing a story thinks, “There are others like me.” A storytelling parent models coping skills and provides a template for self-expression, logic, and how to prioritize.
In sharing stories, parent and child are connected at many levels of mindâ€”which translates to many levels of the brain. Siegel speculates: “For a parent to engage in the process of telling a coherent story about his or her life reflects a fundamental capacity for that parent’s brain to integrate memory, knowledge, and feeling. It appears that this ability in the parents’ brain nurtures their children’s own neural integration.” And the process of integration then guides their capacity for self-regulation and full adult development. (Wylie and Simon)
People tell their stories in therapy. That’s how they explain themselves. But they also learn to tell stories, learn how to organize and make something whole from sometimes chaotic feelings of pain and confusion. The enterprise of therapy is itself a kind of story: there are psychoanalytic stories, cognitive-behavioral stories, family therapy stories. Different stories resonate with the brains of different patients. “Therapy evolved because language organizes the brain in some primary, fundamental way,” says Cozolino. “What we know of the brain suggests that therapy is successful to the degree to which it builds and integrates neural networks. In therapy, we teach clients that the more ways they have of interacting with others, experiencing themselves, and understanding life, the more likely they are to find new ways of approaching their problems.
Therapy is a process of helping clients rewrite the story of their lives while simultaneously building neural networks and reorganizing neural integration.”
Psychotherapy is perhaps the area where the human brain’s capacity for storytelling is most deeply engagedâ€”not only telling old stories, but making sense of what has always seemed irrational, and making up newer, better stories, with better plotlines, stronger characters, and more promising outcomes. Even the reduction of the mind to “nothing but” the physical brain, even the way the physical brain functions, become stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, providing meaning, worldviews, and political and social agendas. Our predisposition to stories probably explains our interest in brain science.
Neuroscience researcher Jaak Panksepp of Bowling Green State University posits what he calls a “seeking system” in the brainâ€”the inner urge to find and get, to discover and learn, to understand, to satisfy curiosity. This system underpins primitive urges, like the urge to hunt. It informs complex behaviors, like the search for knowledge, spiritual connection, love. The need to satisfy curiosity about ourselvesâ€”where we come from, who we are, how we developed, what we’re made ofâ€”compels the creation of the evolving story of the brain and how it grows. As John Ratey puts it, “Whatever the advances of neurobiology and our ability to relieve symptoms, I don’t think that we’ll ever undo the need for understanding people’s history.” (Wylie and Simon).
From infancy and childhood it is instinctive for human beings to mirror others, to imitate. Our brains are endowed with specialized "mirror neurons" in our frontal lobes that move us spontaneously in this direction. Researchers have identified individual “mirror neurons in monkeys,” single neurons that fire both when a monkey performs a meaningful acts ”such as eating a peanut and also when a monkey sees another monkey perform an act. Scientists think that this capacity for neural mirroring helps us interpret other people’s actions and feelings, and may be the neurophysiological basis for empathy.
With knowledge of these neurons, you have the basis for understanding a host of very enigmatic aspects of the human mind: "mind reading" empathy, imitation learning, and even the evolution of language. Anytime you watch someone else doing something (or even starting to do something), the corresponding mirror neuron might fire in your brain, thereby allowing you to "read" and understand another's intentions, and thus to develop a sophisticated "theory of other minds." ... Mirror neurons can also enable you to imitate the movements of others thereby setting the stage for the complex Lamarckian or cultural inheritance that characterizes our species and liberates us from the constraints of a purely gene based evolution. . .their emergence and further development in hominids was a decisive step. The reason is that once you have a certain minimum amount of "imitation learning" and "culture" in place, this culture can, in turn, exert the selection pressure for developing those additional mental traits that make us human. And once this starts happening you have set in motion the auto-catalytic process that culminated in modern human consciousness. My suggestion that these neurons provided the initial impetus for "runaway" brain/ culture co-evolution in humans, isn't quite as bizarre as it sounds... the first great leap forward was made possible largely by imitation and emulation. (Ramachandran).
Scientists once thought the number of neurons and their interconnections was permanently fixed: the brain you were born with was physically the brain you died with. Now the rankest of neuroscience heresiesâ€”that the brain produces brand-new cells in maturity ”has become generally accepted, as has the idea that the brain is changing and growing continuously throughout life, shaped as much by experience as genetic heritage.
Every passing sensation, everything we learn, every human contact we make causes millions of neurons to fire together, forming physical interconnections called neural maps or networks, the architecture of all our experiences. Some studies suggest that the process of neural growth can be startlingly fast.
The neurophysiological basis for empathy might logically be extended to include imitating the health-promoting, coping, or recovery behavior of another -- their healing arc, their healing story. It means taking elements from that story and making it one's own.
Tragedy reveals the complex dynamics of action. Dramatic tragedy is said to remove fearful emotions from the soul through compassion and terror through catharsis. Thus, our stories can also be instructive. Our painful tortures become transformative testimonials. They arouse the sympathy, empathy, even imitation of others.
Fabrega presents not only the vulnerability to disease and injury but also the need to show and communicate sickness and to seek and provide healing as innate biological traits grounded in evolution. In FÃ¡brega's view, sickness and healing are linked facets of a unique human adaptation developed during the evolution of the hominid line and expressed culturally in relation to the changing historical contingencies of social organization and complexity. This linking in which sickness and healing are two sides of the same coin rather than separate phenomena offers a new vantage point from which to examine the institution of medicine. After setting forth the idea that a complex, integrated adaptation for sickness and healing lies at the root of medicine, FÃ¡brega goes on to trace the characteristics of sickness and healing through the early and later stages of social evolution. He describes epidemiological patterns of disease and injury, and the associated cultural constructions of sickness and healing, for family- and village-level societies, pre-states, and states and civilizations up to and including the modern European and postmodern eras. The notion of "memes" --units of cultural information stored and used by members of any society, in this case. "Medical memes" that relate to combating the effects of disease and injury--serves FÃ¡brega in elaborating his concepts of the evolution of medicine as a social institution. Besides offering a new conceptual structure and a methodology for analyzing medicine in evolutionary terms, FÃ¡brega shows the relevance of this approach and its implications for the social sciences and for the formulation of medical policy. The evolutionary formulation provides a common basis for the biological, social, and cultural investigation of medicine. (Fabrega, review).
It has been said that we each have a rather small significant number of influential people, decision points, and life-changing events. These influences are the dramatis personae and plot points around which the rest of our stories revolve.
In the language of chaos theory, we might call them the "strange attractors" of our lives -- those people and events without which we would not have become who we are. Often, the hoped-for end is not yet in sight. Our story remains open ended, pregnant with human possibilities, with healing possibilities.
Plot is the unifying elements of narrative giving it holistic cohesion and well as context. The change of fortune introduces a disruption for good or ill. It is this very change of fortune that reveals character, a person's habit of moral choice.
Many of the elements of our history come about by chance, fortune or misfortune. Universally, tragedy is depicted as growing out of an initial small plot point into a sizable magnitude and influence, through a close succession of probable events. This is reflected in chaos theory where sensitivity to initial conditions amplifies small changes into ones of tremendous magnitude and scale -- even global effects.