IDEAS AFTERNOON

How the stories we tell ourselves might help create consciousness

Narrative thinking is how we process and understand our own story. American psychologist, Dan McAdams wrote, "We are all storytellers, and we are the stories we tell." But some of us have no unfolding internal autobiography that helps us bridge our brains and minds. Some of us experience life episodically with one event simply following what came before with no sense of any overarching continuity. If narrative thinking is what makes us human, makes us conscious of ourselves, where does that leave those who who don't tell themselves this story, and their place in the world?
Self-narrative — whether implicitly or explicitly articulated — helps us build an understanding about who we are and how we connect to the society and culture we live in. (Shutterstock)
Listen to the full episode53:59

Narrative thinking is how we process and understand our own story. American psychologist Dan McAdams wrote, "We are all storytellers, and we are the stories we tell."  The idea is that consciousness is related to a grand overarching story that we tell ourselves — we are here and we're going there and this is what it means. It's how we know ourselves.

But some of us have no continuously unfolding internal autobiography that helps us bridge our brains and minds. Some experience life episodically with one event simply following what came before with no sense of any larger continuity. If narrative thinking is what makes us human, makes us conscious of ourselves, where does that leave those who don't tell themselves this story? How do they know their place in the world?

If this notion of having a narrative is important, I take it that it's got to mean more than that you have a reasonably good grasp of your own history.- Galen Strawson

​We're addicted to stories — anything with an intriguing opening that reels us in and continues into a "tension-filled middle" and a satisfying ending. We do it instinctively, telling wee babies the stories of their birth and continuing with the bedtime stories that toddlers love. This predisposition toward narrativity is a human impulse, not just connected to the stories we tell each other, but also to the story we tell about ourselves. This self-narrative — whether implicitly or explicitly articulated — helps us build an understanding about who we are and how we connect to the society and culture we live in.

At least, that's the prevailing view among anthropologists, historians, psychologists, and others.

But how accurate are these stories we tell ourselves? If our memory is unreliable and ever-changing, and physics and neuroscience constantly show us that the world is not actually how we perceive it and that we don't process it the way we think we do, then what does that mean for these stories we tell about ourselves? How real is our self-conception?What does this say about consciousness?

This documentary is Part 2 of a 3-part series about Consciousness. It's called Have I Got A Story for You!

Alex Rosenberg is Professor of Philosophy at Duke University. 1:37


Guests in this episode:

  • Carole McGranahan is Professor of Anthropology, History, and Tibetan Studies at University of Colorado, and the author of  Arrested Histories: Tibet, the CIA, and Memories of a Forgotten War (Duke University Press, 2010), and co-editor with John Collins of Ethnographies of U.S. Empire (Duke University Press, 2018).
  • Galen Strawson is Professor of Philosophy, University of Texas at Austin and the author of Things That Bother Me: Death, Freedom, The Self, Etc. (New York Review Books, 2018) and The Subject of Experience (Oxford University Press, 2017).
  • Alex Rosenberg is Professor of Philosophy, Duke University and the author of How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of our Addiction to Stories (MIT Press, 2018) and The Atheist's Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions (WW Norton, 2011).
     


**This episode was produced by Naheed Mustafa and is Part 2 of a 3-part series on Consciousness.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.