Supplements to Chapter 3: Storifying Our Lives - Harnessing How We Translate Experience Into Narrative
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Interesting side note related to our innate Narrative Ability: People who lack narrative ability, or what psychologists sometimes call “narrative coherence,” often have difficulty sharing, communicating, or empathizing with others. They can have challenges forming important social bonds and have difficulty predicting the thoughts and feelings of others. They can feel excluded, misunderstood, frustrated or angry at home, school, or work and not understand why. This includes those with receptive or expressive language disorders, speech and/or hearing problems, brain injuries, Autism, extreme forms of ADHD, or even delayed development due to lack of social interaction and story hearing/ telling during formative years.
Interestingly, people with dyslexia often excel in their narrative abilities, due in part to the meticulous decoding of language (especially written words) they must perform to read and comprehend well.
Through the challenges some people have with narrative, we see how crucially important it is in our lives, even if we hardly ever pay attention
The Ascent of Narrative
The history of human narrative is like an unstoppable fire that raged throughout the world once language and oral traditions began. So deeply rooted is our narrative ability that our evolutionary survival probably depended on it. The very first stories were likely simple translations of experience into narrative form that helped us to survive, perhaps relating where the nearest water or herds of animals could be found, sequential descriptions of trails or landmarks, or what dangerous neighbors or predators were nearby.
Soon thereafter, the first fictional stories would have quickly followed in the form of deceptions, lies and embellishments — allowing us to mislead each other and artificially raise or protect our social standing, power, and influence, or simply to cover up our dirty deeds. As we learned to use stories to project into the future as well as retell the past, they became our mental time machines, organizing memory and history along with planning and predicting.
The beginnings of myths and legends then grew out of larger wonderings about the world — why do the sun, moon and stars rise and set? Where do rain and fire and plants come from? Why are there animals? Why do we grow and die? Entire mythologies and religions began to emerge. And as our understanding of the world grew, so too did our storytelling abilities. Written language appeared around some 9000 years ago, maturing into alphabets and basic writing about 3000 years ago: cuneiform in Sumerian, hieroglyphs in Egypt and China, and various scripts of the Maya and Olmec of Mesomerica.
We know written language evolved into narrative literature soon thereafter with examples such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey appeared around 2800 years ago, concurrent with early collections of Shijing poetry in China, Sanskrit in India, and Semitic narrative inscriptions across the Middle East. From then, we have a well-documented stream of literary development from the Greeks and the Romans, through the Middle Ages in Europe, the Islamic, Arabic, and Persian cultures and into the modern era.
As stories were passed on across the generations, narratives became the social glue that could cohere and preserve knowledge and culture. Theater and the arts blossomed. Our history, political systems, myths, traditions, and even the origins of our sciences are all steeped in our narrative psyche. Then as now, narratives served to contextualize and give meaning and guidance to our societies and our individual lives.
We might easily imagine a kind of evolution of storytelling arising to meet our social needs throughout human history — a narrative of narratives, if you will. All of which are still with us and used today — from the earliest rudimentary plots for survival, to the most sophisticated and symbolic existential stories of our species, and then back (ironically) to the most simplistic narrative bits of social media, limited to TikTok’s 3-minute videos or Twitter’s 280 characters. This single paragraph is 534 characters, by the way.
Lest I devalue the importance of what I call the “narrative bits” of social media, I should note that they hold tremendous potential for designers of transformative experiences. In graduate school, learning the Narrative Study of Lives, we had to write 6-word memoirs and then de-construct them for analysis. It seemed a hopeless task to me at first. But as
we explored the nuance of sequence, social reference, and memes needed to craft anything meaningful yet still so brief, the art became apparent to me.
Online, such narrative bits quickly evolve and mutate into communal creations. My own kids seamlessly sail from YouTube to Snap streaks to TikTok, and more, both receiving and creating small and fast narrative bits as part of an absolutely huge and endless narrative conversation. This alone makes social media an essential tool for designers.
Eventually, I came to incorporate and enthusiastically encourage social media generation in my designs to support robust and personally relevant narrative creation nested for individuals, groups, and their larger communities. More on the practical aspects of this in Chapter 12.
Individual Narrative in Three Parts:
Language, Cognition, & Theory-of-Mind
The progression of our species’ narrative development also tracks with how we individually develop linguistically, cognitively, and socially from early childhood on through our later years. Our narrative abilities are inextricably connected to these three foundational areas and social scientists are learning more about them all the time, offering up a treasure trove of insights and tools for designing experiences for people of different ages.
Typically, our language acquisition process begins with blabbering and simple words around 0-2 year old. By 3 years old or so, basic syntax, sentences, and rudimentary stories emerge, followed quickly by our first lies and deceptions starting around 3 or 4 years old. More elaborate stories with nuanced concepts like sarcasm come along later by ages 5-7, and then increasingly figurative language and narrative abstractions by age 10. Throughout adolescence, we continue to refine and acquire more complex language constructions, continuing into adulthood.
At the same time, we develop three important cognitive skills (among many others): working memory, self-regulation, and executive function:
• Working memory refers to memory formation, retrieval and relevant application to present situations. It is a core function of knowledge construction — and of course narrative. As we get older through childhood, our memory facility becomes better, faster, and more complex as the number of our neural connections increases exponentially through learning.
• Self-regulation describes our ability to control our thoughts, emotions, and actions in order to achieve our goals. This includes planning, problem-solving, and evaluating ourselves in effectively dealing with thoughts, emotions and actions that get in the way of our goals. Self-regulation develops throughout our lives, but most rapidly from 0 to 4 years of age — about the same time as we begin to tell our first stories.
• Executive function refers to our higher order cognitive skills — those that organize our many other cognitive abilities. You can think of it like the CEO of a company who sees the big picture and coordinates the other executives and managers to get things done. This includes adaptive thinking, time and effort management, attentional deployment, working memory, and self-regulation, among others. It is an essential element of leadership and decision-making and it typically develops in three spikes: first at ages 3-5, then again in adolescence, and once more in early adulthood. These spikes correspond to when we start telling our first stories, when our stories become more complex and abstract, and when we refine and settle into our language and narrative abilities as adults.
Finally, while all this is happening, we are also developing what is called “theory-of-mind” in cognitive psychology. And this is quite important for our narrative capacity. Theory-of-mind is a term for our ability to perceive and understand the thoughts and feelings of others. It is related to what psychologists call “perspective taking” and is the root of empathy and communication with others.
Seeing the world through another’s eyes includes a complex appreciation for how their moods, beliefs, perceptions and intentions work together to direct their behavior. And it starts with an understanding of those same forces within ourselves, harkening back to the importance of self-regulation and executive function. (Peterson, Wellman, & Slaughter, 2012, p. 469; Sussman, 2006). Researchers in this area have begun to identify different dimensions of theory-of-mind, each with different neurological bases and developmental processes:
• Cognitive and affective theory-of-mind – thinking about thoughts, knowledge, beliefs, intentions, and emotions
• Interpersonal theory-of-mind – thinking about other people’s thoughts and emotions
• Intrapersonal theory-of-mind – thinking about one’s own thoughts and emotions (Westby et al, 2014)
It turns out that stories which involve others or that are about others, both depend on and help shape the development of our theory-of-mind. Around ages 4 to 5 (again, as we move from simple to more complex stories), we start to see 1st order theory-of-mind emerging, which is the ability to detect what someone else is thinking. This includes understanding that different people think and act in different ways to get what they want, may have differing beliefs about the same things in the world that lead to different expectations, may believe false things based on varying access to knowledge, or may even hide their true feelings and present false ones if it serves their social needs (Wellman and Liu, 2004; Peterson et al, 2012).
By 6 to 10 years old (when our stories include sarcasm, deceptions, and become more abstract and representational), we see 2nd order theory-of-mind emerging. This is where we can perceive what a person may be thinking or feeling about what a different person is thinking or feeling. (Westby et al, 2014; Miller, 2012; de Villiers et al, 2014). This kind of nested perception is critical not only for navigating the social complexities of groups, but also for forming narratives that can explain and guide our behavior and the behaviors of others in groups.
From pretending, reading, deceiving, and storytelling in children, theory-of-mind continues to mature through adulthood where it enables us to better engage in authentic conversations, participate in meaningful relationships, and forge a robust sense-of-self based on autobiographical memories and narratives that make meaning of our experiences and ourselves.
Putting all this together provides us with a nice narrative roadmap as experience designers for the kind of language, thinking, and awareness that our experiencers of different ages can utilize in the narrative translation of their experiences. For example, as experiential design leaders for young people — especially parents, educators, and coaches — our narrative supports should take these developmental stages and indicators into account, build on them over time, and also beware when we stretch into territory too sophisticated or too soon for some experiencers. For leaders of adults, this roadmap of indicators should push us into designs that are sufficiently complex, challenging, and with narrative translations that are not so simple as to expect too little of experiencers whose cognitive development requires nuance and complexity. We explore the practical implications of these indicators in Chapter 12 of the book.
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What I learned from Jesse Jackson About Narrative Typology
Many years ago, on one of my first trips working with the National Center for Women and IT, I attended a conference at Intel’s headquarters in San Francisco. The Reverend Jesse Jackson was speaking. His Rainbow Coalition group was taking a stance on diversity, equity, and inclusion in big tech, relating it to the Civil Rights movement he had helped shaped over his lifetime.
After he had finished his extremely moving speech and left the stage, I ducked out to make a phone call. When I returned, everybody was still in the auditorium — except for Reverend Jackson — who was alone in the lobby at the snack table grabbing a quick bite. It was an opportunity I could not pass up.
Now, I had seen Reverend Jackson decades ago in the 90’s when I was an undergraduate and he came to my college campus as part of his presidential campaign. He gave a powerful speech called “Common Ground” about the unifying threads woven into our American experience as the most multi-cultural nation on Earth. Then as now, I was moved by his perspectives.
So on this day, I awkwardly walked up to him with a smile and introduced myself. I told him the story of seeing him all those years ago. He shook my hand between bites, probably wondering if I wanted a selfie with him (I now regret not getting one!). Instead, I told him about my research into transformative experiences and asked him, as I have so many others, “Reverend Jackson, what has been your most transformative experience, so far?”
Suddenly serious, he asked me my name again, put down his plate and turned to face me squarely. At about six foot three inches, Jackson is a towering man. I remember looking up at him, ready for a towering story. Not missing a beat, he instead gave me two of his most transformative experiences, complete with their ultimate impacts — as though he understood and cut right to the chase of my question.
First, he said, was being there when Dr. Martin Luther King Junior was assassinated. He described it as a heartbreaking and nation-changing moment that while tragic, also ensured Dr. King’s lasting moral authority forevermore. It also resulted in a personal transformation for Jackson, as he realized in an instant that the torch had been passed to himself and King’s other supporters to now lead. It was both a tragedy narrative and a coming-of-age narrative as Jackson rose to help fill the empty space King left behind.
Second, he said, was the freeing of hostages. First in 1983, when he freed downed pilot Robert Goodman Jr. from Syria under Hafez Al-Assad. Then again in 1990 when he negotiated the release of dozens of captives from Saddam Hussein in Iraq, including 5-year-old Brit Stuart Lockwood and his parents. And also the negotiated rescue of three captured American soldiers in Bosnia from Slobodan Milosevic in 1999. No one thought he could succeed in these endeavors, acting as a private citizen. But he was backed by his network — a coalition of friends, family, non-profits, sponsors, and fellow interdenominational clergy from around the world. And when he did succeed, he was transformed from into an internationally respected statesman, even running for president in 1984 and 1988 (when I first saw him speak), in addition to his identity as human rights activist.
He told me that these experiences demonstrated to himself that he could succeed where others could not, and that he had a moral obligation to try no matter the odds. Jackson has now negotiated the release of over 200 captives all over the world, including Cuba, Africa, and Europe. These transformative experiences were part test-of-will narratives, part relationship narratives, and part inspiration narratives.
As he finished his story, his entourage found us at the snack table and said the car was ready. A moment later, Jesse Jackson was gone. I pulled out my notebook immediately and wrote my notes of this serendipitous encounter.