As humans, we are driven to narrative. It is almost impossible for us to experience a sequence of events and not attempt to ascribe some kind of narrative arc to it. What just happened? What does it mean? How did it start? What will happen next?
There is a considerable literature on the theory and practice of creating narrative in different contexts: fiction or non-fiction; in print or on stage or screen; or via any other medium. Narrative can be language-based, as in a novel, or non-verbal, as in a choreographed dance, or a combination of both, as in a movie. But the basic structure of narrative mostly boils down to a few key points: there is a beginning, middle and an end; something changes along the way; it occurs in some kind of contextual framework. If any of these key elements is missing, we, the readers or viewers, inevitably will try to fill in the gaps.
Over the last 20 years, neuroscientists and cognitive scientists have made significant advances in understanding how – and to some degree, why – the brain creates narrative. Much of this new research complements well the ideas of theorists and practitioners concerning the role of narrative in literature, cinema, theatre and dance. Indeed, many authors have integrated data across the sciences and humanities to build new appreciations of how and why narrative works. Key foundation texts in this field include The Poetics of Mind: Figurative Thought, Language and Understanding by Raymond W Gibbs, Jr (1994); On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction by Brian Boyd (2009); and How Literature Plays with the Brain: the Neuroscience of Reading and Art by Paul B Armstrong (2013).
From a cognitive point of view, we can consider the construction of a narrative as coming in different flavours: for example, we can describe a series of external events, that is, things that others can also describe from their own experiences of the same events; we can create a story from our own remembered experiences that is essentially private, since no one else can have those same memories; or we can create a fiction, a story that no one has ever actually experienced, even though such a narrative necessarily contains elements that are relatable to the external world.
Autobiography, memory and narrative
In order to create a narrative, we must access several different elements of memory. There is no single phenomenon called “memory”. Rather, there are many forms of memory, some of which are so fundamental to neural processing that we are not consciously aware of them. The duration of different types of memory can range from a few tenths of a second (eg the early steps of processing visual or auditory stimuli) to a lifetime (eg learning to walk or knowing what a flower is). Furthermore, many forms of memory lie outside easy verbal description, eg how to button up a shirt; how you solved a crossword puzzle; how you felt at lunch-time yesterday.
The components of a traditional first-person narrative (“I did this, and then I did that…”) rely on what is generally known as “autobiographical memory”. This is memory of what you have done in the past. It is fully private, in that only you can access it. Unless you have a very specific type of brain injury, it is updated continuously as you consciously experience the world. There are several remarkable features of this memory system:
- It is initially encoded by the same part of the brain (the hippocampus) that also encodes and keeps track of our movements through space and time in our local environment.
- This means that salient events are automatically linked to a time and place.
- Some time after these events are first recorded into memory, they are transformed into long-term memory stores elsewhere in the brain where they are associated with other memories of varying degrees of relevance or significance: the nature of event itself, the weather beforehand, the person who wasn’t there, the name of the movie, the music playing at the bus-stop…
- Each time these long-term autobiographical memories are actively retrieved they are remade: in effect, they are re-remembered.
- The neural processes involved in imagining a future autobiographical event are almost the same as those remembering a past autobiographical event. People with a damaged hippocampus not only cannot remember what they did in the past, they cannot imagine themselves doing something in the future.
- As a consequence, autobiographical memory, most of the time, is hopelessly unreliable (there are other factors contributing to this, but that’s another story).
- And as a consequence of that, virtually all narrative is a construction of unreliable memories. In other words, I suggest, all narrative can be considered to be first-person fiction (and that is yet another story…)
For the reader or viewer of a narrative, we automatically feed the story (such as it might be) through our own autobiographical memory processor. We identify the temporal sequence, the salience of each component, the relationships between the components, assign meaning to elements we recognise and make a guess at the meanings of elements new to us. Even the most abstract, abstruse, uneventful “narrative” will have a beginning, middle and an end, a context in which it is viewed, an emotional and cultural framework within which we will evaluate it. And so we create our own narrative version of “the story”, almost certainly incomplete when compared with the narrator’s intent, perhaps remembered only fleetingly, but more likely, generating a new entry of our own autobiographical memory (“Let me tell you about the movie I saw last night…”).
Selling the story – you don’t need much…
This ability for the viewer to make narrative out of minimal clues has been well recognised for many years. A famous experiment by Heider and Simmel (1944) showed how moving abstract shapes are commonly read as behaving like people within a strong narrative arc.
Similarly, short form texts such haiku, one-sentence poems, even Tweets (!!) can be commanding in their narrative intensity. Advertisers have known all this for a long time. Successful television advertisements must tell a story in as few as 15 seconds (“Look at this! See, it’s amazing! That’s why you need it… Buy one now! Get it here!!”). Indeed, some television advertisements have been recognised as stand-out examples of short-form video narration, for example, highly-regarded productions for Budweiser and Google.
Most television advertising lacks such sophisticated production values, but even the most simple, hackneyed approaches can inspire a poetry video narrative. In my 42nds, the timing of the scenes and the amount of text per scene closely follows that of typical advertisements 15-45 seconds long. This video was commissioned for outdoor screening in a downtown shopping mall and has since been screened on other public locations mixed in with genuine advertisements.
I’ll finish with two examples of masterful, albeit unconventional, poetry videos, both of which have featured on Moving Poems previously, that incorporate many of the elements mentioned above. These episodic narratives subvert the tropes of commercial television whilst illustrating the highly mutable state of autobiographical memory: Profile by RW Perkins and Human Condition by Rich Ferguson and Mark Wilkinson.
The success of these videos relies totally on our ability to:
- recognise the contexts of what is happening in each episode;
- hold the episodes in our short-term working memory long enough to understand the relationships between them;
- synthesise the meaning of the full narrative in terms that make sense to us, thereby embedding the external narrative in our own autobiographical memory, ready to reappear, perhaps in a subsequent narrative of our own. Which is more or less what has happened in this essay…