The paradox of narrative thinkingFrancis F. Steen
University of California Los Angeles
[Draft of an article to appear in the February 2005 issue of Journal of Cultural and Evolutionary Psychology.]
Why do human beings show such a strong preference for
thinking in narratives? From a computational perspective, this method
of generating inferences appears to be exorbitantly wasteful. Using
students' responses to the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood, I
argue that narrative comprehension requires the construction of
idiosyncratic imagery, but that the cognitive yield is structural and
shared. This peculiar method of information processing, I suggest, is
the outcome of evolutionary path-dependence. The narrative mode of
construal is an expert system taking its input from the display of
conscious experience, but producing results that are largely
unconscious. Drawing on examples from rhesus play, I argue that the
core features of narrative thinking have biological roots in strategy
formation. Finally, I return to the fairy tale to illustrate the
operation of a series of peculiar design features characteristic of
human narrative thinking.
Keywords: narrative, evolutionary theory, consciousness, global workspace theory, simulation, pretense, play, unintelligent design theory
We tell each other stories every day, effortlessly, without stopping to wonder what it is we are doing. Yet the ubiquitous practice of narrative is a remarkable human achievement. Through narrative, the young child reaches out to a new friend, soliciting contact through the confirmation of a shared imaginative reality; the lawyer pleads the innocence of his client by arousing the emotions of the jury; the story-teller entertains his audience by conjuring up absent or imaginary men and beasts. In the prototypical narrative, we establish relations between the actions of social agents, accounting for outcomes, linking causes to effects, and assigning credit and responsibility.
In cognitive terms, forming a narrative is an act of connecting a succession or mere co-occurrence of agents and objects into a causally ordered, intuitively graspable whole. The work of the narrator generates a structure that can be reused – as Bateson (980) put it, “a pattern that connects,” a prototype of understanding and intelligibility. Listeners can selectively uncompress the meaning of this prototype by projecting it back onto their own real and imagined pasts and futures. In this manner, narratives can function as abstract models that structure, simplify, and lay out causal connections among otherwise indefinite and unintelligible events. By trying out a succession of stories on a particular situation and seeing which of them most credibly generate and fit with the observed facts, narratives function as testable hypotheses in heuristic thought experiments. In these and other ways, narrative helps us orient ourselves as agents in a complex natural and social world and make our experience meaningful (Bruner, 1987).
The presence of material
that has a narrative format is commonplace in any compendium of
anthropological source material, such as the Human Area Relations
Files. From autobiographies and histories to folktales and myths, the
story is used to remember, to persuade, to entertain. Proverbs, found
in nearly all cultures, present moral lessons that must be unpacked
into a narrative to be understood (Hernadi and Steen, 1999). The
pervasive presence of narrative in human cultures throughout history
indicates that the capacity to generate stories is tightly integrated
into the everyday operation of the human mind. This integration
expresses itself in part as a spontaneous preference for narratives
over other forms of symbolic representation, such as mathematics or
object mechanics, in part in the wonderful ease and skill with which
people make sense of their world by narrating it. Through narrative, we
know how to make impressively effective use of the information we glean
from a situation.
This claim will strike many
people as trivially self-evident. However, it remains a puzzle that
human beings should be so designed. In what sense are narratives
computationally effective? Stories are not a favored form of
representation for our artificially constructed thinking machines, even
though computers are built by people and might by default be expected
to share the unconscious cognitive biases of their designers. Unlike
people, computers do not think it terms of stories. Bateson (1980)
proposed this capacity is diagnostic of human intelligence, imagining a
future moment in which the computer scientist asks his computer, “Do
you compute that you will ever think like a human being?" If, after a
long pause, the machine were to respond, "That reminds me of a
story...”, and proceed to illustrate, in a manner that combined the
idiosyncratic stamp of individual experience with a generic and
universally understood narrative structure, a specific case in which
this question received – implicitly or explicitly – a meaningful
answer, then and only then might we be justified in claiming that
machines have achieved our level of intelligence. The fact is that
today's vastly powerful computers employ nothing like the narrative
method for organizing, storing, and communicating information, or for
generating inferences, highlighting the oddity of the human reliance on
In the following, I suggest
that the spectacular narrative performances we see in every human
culture is made possible by a complex suite of well-established and
tested adaptations with a deep biological history. In a nutshell, I
argue that narrative in its elementary form is an evolved mode of
construal, a systematic method for making sense of specific aspects of
existence, notably those that involve the task of predicting what
agents will do. This mode of construal plays a key role in interpreting
as well as in generating strategic action, in play and pretense as well
as in functional interactions. Finally, we find it in the
sophisticated mental simulations that are the hallmark of human
cognition. Cultural uses of narrative are able to piggyback on and
recruit a set of neurobiological circuits that were subject to natural
selection over various periods, some relatively recent and others
stretching all the way back to the early mammals. It is this continuity
of function, I argue, that produces the paradox of narrative thinking:
the simultaneous juxtaposition of the universal preference for
narrative as an efficient and effortless method of organizing
information, and the cognitive analysis suggesting it is in
computational terms extravagantly expensive and for many purposes
strikingly inefficient. Using my students' responses to the fairy tale
of Little Red Riding Hood, I begin by giving an illustrative analysis
of the paradox of narrative thinking, focusing on the fictive variety.
I then develop a theoretical model that identifies the narrative mode
of construal as an expert system taking its input from the display of
conscious experience. Drawing on examples from rhesus play, I argue
that the core structure of narrative fictions has deep biological
roots. Finally, I return to the fairy tale to illustrate the operation
of a series of impressive yet idiosyncratic design features of the
In spite of the fact that
not a single frame will be identical, however, the listeners to the
story of Little Red Riding Hood will be very confident that they have
all heard and understood the same story and participated in a common
and shared experience. For the purpose of comprehending the story, it
appears that the specifics of the mental imagery can be overlooked.
This is the central puzzle of narrative: different movies, and yet with
great conviction the same story.
This is an extravagant state
of affairs. When the brain is generating composite, moving,
three-dimensional images on the fly, it is doing something that the
most sophisticated computers still struggle to accomplish. Hollywood
does produce 3D movies, but these are painstakingly put together frame
by frame and then converted into moving images using renderfarms of
hundreds of clustered computers. The software and computational power
required to generate a coherent movie using several sources of stills
and episodic images, modified instantly to fit the scene, and
composited on the fly, are either not available technologies or beyond
the budgets even of the big studios. Now, the brain is doing this at
the drop of a hat – and for the purpose of a shared understanding, the
whole show don't seem to matter one bit.
Of course any child would do
fine at this task of understanding the story. She would know, without
realizing that she knew, that stories are about people facing some
difficulty, and needing to come up with a way of overcoming this
difficulty. Seeing a movie of Little Red Riding Hood, her mind would
effortlessly abstract these elements and make a series of complex
inferences regarding appropriate strategies of action in some class of
similar circumstances. Listening to the story read aloud, she would
generate her own imagery and utilize it in a similar manner to generate
inferences – to construct a series of implicit morals, similar to the
one that is explicitly provided in Perrault's 1697 version of the tale.
Human minds are wired precisely in the requisite manner to solve this
particular task – in fact they show a perverse preference for
processing information in this roundabout fashion.
The point could be put even
more strongly. The child appears to rely on a mental representation of
the agent (Little Red Riding Hood), the setting (the forest), the goal
(survival), the obstacle (the wolf) and the little girl's resources
(her imperfect understanding of the danger) in order to generate the
appropriate inferences. Even though the details of the mental imagery
don't matter, the imagery itself is mandatory. That is to say, the
story must undergo a peculiar form of processing to be understood.
But why would natural selection produce a computational device that uses moving 3D images to make inferences about something that has nothing to do with the specifics of the images produced? It would be one thing if you generated complex imagery that would visualize the information for you, but this is not at all what's happening in narratives – on the contrary, almost every feature of the visualized information has nothing to do with the target inferences. Only on a very abstract level can we say that the mental imagery instantiates the structural components in such a way as to make them intelligible. The general puzzle is, why do we want information presented in a narrative format? In what sense could this possibly be an efficient method of information processing? It's as if a computer, to make the right inference about 2 + 2, had to represent the numbers as dancing penguins trying to escape a polar bear. Inherent in its processing loop is the requirement that it generate moving three-dimensional dancing penguins, and when this display is sensed by some second component, it generates the correct inference: 4. While it is absurd from a computational perspective, showing dancing penguins may not be a bad procedure for teaching very young children how to add. This tells us something important about human cognition – but what exactly?
Similarly, the structural
lesson that a child abstracts from a narrative may lend itself to a
rather elementary representation. In the case of the fairly tale, for
instance, let's say the target inference is “Don't stray from the path”
and “Don't stop to talk to wolves”. Or you might argue the inferences
are really more complex; Perrault (1697), for instance, suggests that
the “wolf” must be understood as a friendly but wicked man out to take
advantage of young girls. Yet however complex these morals are, it is
not hard to state them briefly. Why not skip the story and just provide
the moral? Why this fantastically circuitous route?
At a very basic level, the central role of the brain is to enable and dispose the organism to respond to its environment in a manner that promotes survival and reproduction. The simplest way to accomplish the task of connecting sensory information to appropriate action is a response system that is triggered by a particular range of stimulus values. Under adaptive pressure, genetic mutations may arise that build cognitive mechanisms to broaden the scope of the data acquired, improve its quality, and produce a better targeted response. In mammals, sensory data acquisition systems are complemented by perceptual processing systems that refine the incoming data stream, extracting meaningful patterns, mapping the data onto a spatial grid, adding color, and multiplexing sound, vision, smell, and touch, and outputting the result to what may loosely be spoken of as a locus of subjective phenomenology, a perceptually-based form of consciousness.
As Edelman (1992) explains
it, primary consciousness is “a state of being aware of things in the
world”, one in which we experience “a 'picture' or 'mental image' of
ongoing categorized events” (p. 12). This elementary form of
consciousness, present in mammals, in itself “lacks an explicit notion
or a concept of a personal self, and it does not afford the ability to
model the past or the future as part of a correlated scene” (p. 24), in
contrast to the distinctive form of “higher-order consciousness”
characteristic of humans.
Edelman's account implies that what appears in sensory consciousness is already categorized: an initial level of processing has already taken place prior to any conscious experience. Our subjective phenomenology as we open our eyes and perceive the world is that it is not a confused jumble of sounds, lights and colors; it consists of an ordered world of objects in space and time. This initial construction of conscious experience, however, is not the highest level of analysis available to us. Thus, in the case of visual processing, Marr (1982) showed that conscious experience is characterized by what he called a “2½D sketch.” The world as we perceive it is a vast improvement over the two-dimensional image that falls on our retinas, but its full three-dimensionality is not represented in consciousness. We know, for instance, that people have back-sides as well as fronts, but our conscious experience presents only what is visible to us from our particular perspective. Sensory consciousness displays the intermediate results of visual analysis; the mind generates higher levels of analysis that do not get displayed.
The critical issue here is
the relation between the intermediate and the higher levels of
analysis. In Marr's model, consciousness is not assigned a function; it
is simply the receptacle for an intermediate level of visual analysis.
At the time Marr published his landmark study, consciousness was not
considered a legitimate subject in its own right, but this began to
change with the publication of Baars' 1988 book, A Cognitive Theory of
Consciousness. It presents a model that assigns consciousness the
function of a “global workspace” (Baars 2002). Global Workspace theory
utilizes a metaphor of the mind as a theatrical production:
“Consciousness resembles a bright spot on the theater stage of Working Memory (WM), directed there by a spotlight of attention, under executive guidance (Baddeley, 1993). The rest of the theater is dark and unconscious. 'Behind the scenes' are contextual systems, which shape conscious contents without ever becoming conscious... Once a conscious sensory content is established, it is broadcast widely to a distributed 'audience' of expert networks sitting in the darkened theater...” (Baars, 2003).
In this view, consciousness functions within the mind as a type of display or broadcast. Dennett and Kinsbourne (1992) have argued against the notion that consciousness is what they term a “Cartesian theater”, a model where the mind's performance of meaning is watched by a homuncular viewer. Such an arrangement, while easily grasped and intuitively attractive, merely displaces the problem of consciousness to the mind of the homunculus, and so on ad infinitum. In the Global Workspace model, however, the "audience" of the theater of consciousness is a large number of higher-level inference systems that themselves are unconscious. The "presentation" provides them with the richly and appropriately structured information they use as input and require to operate.
Now, why would these
high-level inference systems need a display-type solution? The force of
the metaphor of a display is that the coupling is loose: there is a
many-to-many relation between the information that is shown on the
display and the behavior generated in response. A loose coupling may be
favored in situations where there are multiple inference systems
working in parallel – if you don't know beforehand which one will give
you the response you need, you need to respond to several types of
information at the same time, information gathering resources are
finite and under pressure, and you must constantly reassign them new
More generally, the need for
a broadcast-type functionality is due to the modular architecture of
the mind (Hirschfeld and Gelman, 1994). A key argument in evolutionary
psychology is that natural selection will tend to produce highly
specialized cognitive subsystems, each of which is optimized for
solving recurring problems within a narrow domain (Tooby and Cosmides,
1992). A corollary of this argument is that the resulting architecture
will over time generate a persistent and pervasive communication and
coordination problem within the mind, as different specialized
subsystems operate on locally optimized information formats. Global
Workspace theory presents a simple solution to this emerging design
problem. It implies that consciousness was selected for as a result of
the adaptive problem of increasing modularity, which creates obstacles
for the effective integration and sharing of information among the
different functions within the brain. By adapting to the lingua franca
of the representational format of consciousness, highly specialized
expert systems are given the means to interoperate effectively.
We have no grounds for
assigning this architecture to a hominid innovation. Behavior
indicative of sensory consciousness – an active search for multiple
dimensions of information, accompanied by a state of elevated
suspension as multiple interpretations and options are being weighed,
and leading to flexible behavioral responses – is common among mammals.
It is constructed moment to moment from sense data by 'backstage'
processes that are fast, informationally encapsulated, and mandatory,
as described in Fodor's The Modularity of Mind (1983). Rather than “one
great blooming, buzzing confusion,” as William James famously
characterized the world of the infant, our conscious perceptual
experience is the fine-tuned product of hundreds of millions of years
of mammalian evolution, presenting an orderly world of objects, agents,
and events. Recent work in developmental psychology indicates that this
is already true for very young infants (Baillargeon 1987; Spelke and
Hermer 1996; Gopnik et al. 2000).
It is worth distinguishing between the kind of modularity advocated by Fodor (1983), which is restricted to the pre-conscious processing of sensory data, and the “massive modularity” (Sperber, 1996) of Tooby and Cosmides (1992), Hirschfeld and Gelman (1994), and others, which is focused on post-conscious inference systems. Fodorian type modules are not only cognitively impenetrable – that is to say, their processes, though not their products, are unavailable to consciousness – but also informationally encapsulated, or incapable of accepting input from higher-level mental processes (Fodor, 1983). While higher-level expert systems, or inference engines, are typically also cognitively impenetrable, they are not informationally encapsulated, in that they accept inputs from consciousness. Indeed, according to Baars (1988, 2003), and contrasting with Marr's model, consciousness is the only source of input to these systems.
For the purpose of clarity
in the following argument, I will adopt this strong version of Global
Workspace theory and assume that higher-level inference engines, such
as the ability to generate a narrative interpretation of events, rely
for their inputs exclusively on that global broadcast of processed
information we call conscious experience. This simplified account
provides us with a powerful tool to understand the paradoxical nature
of narrative thinking.
The preceding discussion of
a sensory consciousness allows us to recast the task at hand, making it
considerably more tractable. First of all, our subjects must be hooked
up to a three-dimensional holodeck rather than a bank of flat screens.
The world we experience in the privacy of our minds is not a
two-dimensional, unlabeled matrix of sensations. Rather, it is a
2½D sketch of a world with three dimensional properties, a world
already parsed into Kantian categories of objects and agents, located
in space and time. Within this architecture, the narrative mode of
construal operates as a high-level expert system that takes its input
from this pre-processed and orderly presentation, one in which a girl
is walking through a forest.
To peal away a level of
fictive remove and mimic this model of sensory consciousness, let us
imagine that the forest is real, and that our subjects are perched in
the trees. Privileged observers of the fairy-tale drama, they broadcast
their conscious experiences via wireless broadband to our observational
holodeck at central command: Operation Little Red Riding Hood. The
holographic projections now show what any person would recognize as the
same scene, only viewed from multiple different angles. What is
experienced in consciousness is the little girl, Little Red Riding
Hood, a path on which she walks, a meadow full of flowers, a forest of
trees. The point is that this is the first we see: there are no priors
to this experience, no conscious display of the complex Fodorian
processes whereby the gestalt of the individual trees and flowers, the
path and the approaching wolf, are abstracted from the matrix of
sensory perception and presented in consciousness. What we see on the
holodeck is a coherent world ready to be interpreted. The narrative
mode of construal is an expert system that takes this world as its
As an example of how I
envisage a narrative expert system operating to generate predictions,
consider Don Symons' (1977) filmed analysis of rhesus macaque
playfighting. Symons begins by establishing the common narrative
structure to such fights:
Aggressive play may appear to be unordered or haphazard, but it is not. During playfights, each monkey attempts simultaneously to bite its partner and to avoid being bitten. A monkey achieves its goal to the extent that its partner fails. It is the players' working at cross-purposes to each other that makes playfighting so fast-paced, so complex, and so variable. (02:30 min)
By attributing goals to the agents – in this
case a set of mutually exclusive goals, defining an agonistic
relationship – Symons is able to make sense of a vast range of
otherwise unpredictable behavior. What generates the complexity of the
behavior, however, is not agonism itself but the size of each monkeys'
repertoire of moves. The combinatorial space of all available moves is
stupendously large, and the challenge of the playfight from the
participants' perspective is to generate and carry out contextually
appropriate sequences of moves that bring you closer to your goal. The
critical skill here is the length and complexity of the behavioral
sequences you can carry off – at the lower end, we call them tactics,
and the higher end, strategies.
In Symons' blow-by-blow
analysis of a playfight between A, a three-year-old male, and B, a
two-year-old male, we see the younger monkey pursuing a rapid
succession of tactical sequences with a time horizon of split seconds:
B initiates the playfight by leaning forward and biting A on the chest. A's mouth is open, in preparation for biting. With his right foot, B pushes A's face away, and prevents A from biting.
The older monkey, in contrast, is working on
developing strategies that involve complex, contingent sequences that
have a time horizon of several seconds:
A attempts simultaneously to roll B to his left and step to B's right, and thus attain a position behind B. Although B attempts to twist to face A, A uses his hands and left foot to roll B onto his side.
Strategic action is guided by the monkeys'
planning – that is to say, their “attempt to achieve positions
favorable for biting, and to avoid positions that render them
susceptible to being bitten” (2:40 min). Achieving the behind position
is a key strategic goal, as the behind money can bite at will and the
monkey in front cannot bite at all. The successful completion of such a
strategy in turn can be predicted based on the relative resources
available to each agent, resources that in an agonistic relationship
function reciprocally as the other's obstacles, the simplest measure of
which is size:
When the behind position is actually achieved in a playfight between two males, it is almost always the larger monkey who achieves it. (03:30 min)
There is no doubt that
Symons possesses sophisticated expert systems enabling him to parse
rhesus playfighting in a manner that provides him with a powerful
generator of behavioral predictions. Yet the reason his analysis needs
to be so sophisticated is that the rhesus macaques themselves act
strategically to reach goals. They generate complex behaviors that
consist in moves drawn from a large repertoire, assembled into orderly
and contextually contingent sequences designed to reach intermediate
goals. The narrative mode of construal utilized to predict behavior,
based on modeling the agents' goals and resources, has its counterpart
in planning, a high-level narrative structuring of behavior. What we
see in rhesus play is the development of proto-narratives in the form
of multiple superficially varied concrete instantiations of strategies
with an underlying structural design. Admittedly, from a human
perspective this design remains simple: a sequence of moves aimed to
achieve a behind position, with a time horizon of now more than a few
seconds. Nevertheless, this analysis suggests that rhesus playfighting
(in which aggression expresses itself in a deliberate sequence,
but remains unconsummated) has the structure of fictive narratives.
In playfights, rhesus
macaques occupy a first-person role in an exciting and aboriginal
drama. By fighting with a larger and more experienced individual,
younger monkeys are challenged to anticipate their opponent's moves. To
master this task, they must construe these moves in narrative terms and
grasp the underlying plot. In the safe environment of pretense, the
players are given a low-cost opportunity to mine the possibility space
of moves by understanding the narrative structures being developed by
their opponents and by increasing the sophistication of their own.
The dual, complementary uses
of the narrative mode of construal – to anticipate the behavior of
others, and to achieve complex goals oneself by means of well-designed
strategies – can thus be seen in a rudimentary form in non-human
mammalian play. Key pieces of the human cognitive architecture appear
to be in place: the monkeys are capable of creating demarcated pretend
spaces where the skills required for high-stakes agonistic encounters
can be practiced safely. From their behavior, we can infer that they
parse the world into agents and objects, and there is little reason to
deny them a sensory consciousness very similar to ours. In the present
model (Figure 1), the production of conscious experience involves
sophisticated, fast, mandatory, and informationally encapsulated
processes located below the threshold of consciousness itself. Strategy
development takes conscious experience as its input and parses it
according to conceptual primitives that include a goal, obstacles to
achieving this goal, and the development of strategic sequences of
moves for marshaling available resources to maximize one's chances of
overcoming these obstacles. We observe such strategy development in
mammalian play, and this model formalizes our narrative intuitions that
allow us to understand and anticipate their behavior. While the
narrative mode of construal itself, according to this model, is one of
a series of higher-level expert systems whose operations are above the
threshold of conscious awareness, its various products manifest
themselves in consciousness as an anticipation of a move, as a feeling
of an opportunity and an intention to act, as a mental image of a goal.
As we share much of their evolutionary history, we can expect to share
key features of rhesus minds.
However impressive these
achievements, major pieces of the human activity are missing from the
drama of rhesus play. Although it is a play, it is not a performance.
Although it is fictive, it does not involve the imaginative projection
of oneself onto another agent. Although it has strategy development,
the stories have time horizons of seconds rather than lifetimes. What
is left for us to account for is how human narratives at once preserve
and build on a set of preexisting adaptations, a sophisticated
mammalian and primate cognitive architecture, and at the same time
introduce dramatic innovations.
Yet the story is not a
chase. If a play chase is a simulation in action of a real chase, the
story of a chase substitutes an imagined predator for the pretended
predator. The mental image of the wolf is different for every child,
yet every image emerges out of and makes explicit and comprehensible
the concept of a wolf. Rather than relying on information from the
senses, the maturing human child develops the ability to recall
memories into consciousness, and to assemble these memories into
episodes. By imaginatively constructing a pretend world from memory,
cued by the words in the story, the child provides his or her
higher-level inference systems with the input they need. The imagined
world is a simulation of a sensed world, and conforms to the same
format, the lingua franca of consciousness itself. This act of
communication within the mind is required because our higher-level
inference systems evolved to take processed perceptual information,
presented in consciousness, as their input. The thrill of the chase is
thus conveyed over to the physically passive act of listening to a
In the mind's eye, however,
the listener must actively construct an inner geography in which the
meaning and significance of the story can unfold. The story of Little
Red Riding Hood becomes an event taking place in time and space: she
walks from home through the forest towards the village where her
grandmother lives, to bring her some food. She takes her time to enjoy
the forest, "gathering nuts, running after butterflies, and making
nosegays of such little flowers as she met with" (Lang, 1889). The
geographical level of the story must be generated before the more
complex modeling can begin: it is required to feed higher-level
inference engines the type of data they can handle.
The predation theme
ubiquitous in mammalian play is put to novel and specifically hominid
uses. The evocation of this ancient narrative serves first of all the
dramatic purpose of activating the excitement, fear, and thrill of
predation play, thus ensuring the child's rapt attention. This
narrative usage is very different from the original biological function
of predation play, which I argue elsewhere is that of providing an
opportunity for practicing predator-evasion skills (Steen and Owens,
2001). In the story, the predator – the wolf – has become a metaphor
for a deceitful and ill-intentioned man. His is a blend of a wolf and a
human being, selectively drawing features from each (cf. Fauconnier and
Turner, 1998). While the predator features activate a primordial set of
cognitive and physiological responses, the human features serve to
explore aspects of the uniquely complex hominid possibility space. This
possibility space is made possible by our expanded capacities for
running recursive simulations for modeling other minds.
The wolf in the story,
unlike real wolves, is a skillful mindreader, and he very subtly uses
his skills to achieve his goals. When he first encounters Little Red
Riding Hood in the forest, he doesn't attack her "because of some
faggot-makers hard by in the forest" (Lang, 1889). Now, why would the
sound of woodmen discourage you? To make sense of the wolf's behavior,
we must model the wolf's mind. As he encounters the girl, he quickly
generates a conscious simulation of a possible future in which he at
once attacks the girl. As he attacks, she screams in terror; he cannot
stop her. Her screams are heard by the faggot-makers -- the wolf now
adopts the perspective of the out-of-sight woodmen, and infers that
since he can hear them, they will hear the child's desperate cries.
What will the woodmen do when they hear the cries? The wolf knows that
in this particular species of primate, the default behavior of adults
is to come to the aid of children threatened by predators, even when
they are not the adults' own offspring; he knows that such a defense is
going to be well coordinated, that these are strong and large males,
and that they are armed with deadly axes. The wolf's higher-level
inference systems compute quite accurately that this scenario is
altogether unappealing; his emotions notify his whole body that such an
attack is extremely risky and should be avoided; and he instantly
abandons this initially promising course of action.
Because the wolf, being a
human blend and having the mental capacities of a human being, has
already covered the overhead costs of building a powerful simulation
machine, the marginal costs of running a particular simulation is tiny.
It is cheap for him to run through this complex, counterfactual
scenario; in his mind, he can explore possibility spaces that in real
life would have been fatally expensive. The simulation of the woodmen
that come to the child's aid is an embedded tale within the tale
itself. Within the world of the tale, it never actually happens; in
fact, the story is not even explicitly told. Yet for the child to
understand the wolf's behavior, she must model the wolf's mind modeling
the woodmen's mind, and reach the same conclusion.
The wolf runs through this
possibility and rejects it fast, while they are still approaching each
other. Before they begin to speak, he initiates a second counterfactual
scenario. In this alternative simulation, he projects a future further
ahead, a situation where he will be able to attack her and eat her
under conditions of his own choosing, in a location where the woodmen
won't hear her. This complex series of moves produces far more
desirable emotions in the wolf, as success seems far more probable. But
how can the wolf, who intends to eat the little girl, reliably obtain
information from her about where she is headed? He quickly realizes
that if he communicates his intentions to her, or even allow them to
shine through, she will become suspicious and afraid, and withhold this
information from him, thwarting his new scenario. The wolf must not
only delay his gratification to be able to carry out his newly formed
strategy; he must as best he can conceal his intentions from her, and
make her think he has a different set of intentions than he actually
does. How can he accomplish this? He must adopt the role of a
trustworthy adult, someone the child can implicitly rely on. By
manipulating her mind in this subtle manner, he increases his chances
of successfully killing her eventually.
The listening child, however, is shielded from the price that Little Redcap has to pay. He is given the tools to understand the wolf's intentions, as the story provides him with information about the wolf's mind that is unavailable to her. A key and distinctive function of hominid stories is to reveal the hidden connections between thought and action, so that the child can improve his skills at mental modeling. Narrative, for this reason, presents its readers with transparent minds (Cohn 1978), rendering the sequence of events hyperintelligible. The listening child is led to infer that communication is not always a good thing. He needs to understand in a visceral manner that the wonderful gift of communication is also a peril. If you freely provide information to those who want to hurt you, you help them to destroy you and those you love. Little Redcap should have communicated to the woodmen that she needed protection, or she should have refused to speak to the wolf. If she really had her wits about her, she could have outwitted him by pretending in turn to believe and accept his pose of friendship and then provided him with information that was incorrect, saving herself and her grandmother and sending him off to some other location, perhaps a place where he would encounter a stronger adversary and be killed instead. These are alternative stories open to the listening child, once he has understood the challenge posed by the tale.
The story itself is an
enactment of pretense. In chase play, the chaser pretends to be a
monster by emitting cues such as stalking, grasping, and growling. In
the final scene of the story of Little Red Riding Hood, the roles are
reversed: it is the wolf, the predator, that pretends to be the safe
and beloved grandmother. Yet in the telling of the story, the
storyteller – who may herself be the listener's grandmother – must
pretend to be and enact the wolf pretending to be her. The situation is
of course entirely absurd: no child would ever make the gross
categorical mistake of confusing a wolf for her grandmother. What makes
this absurdity tolerable, indeed perfectly natural and thrilling, is
that the wolf is in fact the grandmother, or some other safe and loved
adult, pretending to be the wolf. As the storyteller simultaneously
recounts and enacts the story, the wolf is conjured into the present by
invoking his salient features as cues. His big eyes, his big ears, and
– climactically – his big teeth bring him alive and allows the child
the experience the safe and terrifying thrill of being eaten while your
grandma hugs you.
In listening to another, we
construct a partly conscious simulation out of the raw material of our
personal memories. On the one hand, this construction provides our
higher-level inference systems with the material they need to respond
to the story in some way as if it actually happened. On the other hand,
the conceptual grasp of the story that allows us to affirm a shared
understanding is prior to and not dependent on the details of the
simulation. Concepts have an interesting relation to consciousness:
they must necessarily be instantiated in a particular form, drawing on
personal memories, in order to be present in consciousness. Yet this
instantiation is not in itself the concept. The image you utilize to
represent the concept in consciousness does not exhaust the concept,
which can be instantiated in an infinite number of ways. Most
interestingly, human beings have what appears to be a very robust if
entirely implicit understanding of the distinction between a concept
and its simulated instantiation in consciousness. The ability to
distinguish between a concept and its particular instantiation would
appear to be a requirement for symbolic communication beyond some
elementary level of complexity, since the instantiation cannot be
communicated. This line of reasoning produces the somewhat surprising
conclusion that we cannot be conscious of a narrative as such, if what
we mean by this term is the shared understanding a group of people have
of a story. What we are conscious of is only the individual
instantiation of a narrative, an instantiation that in itself is
The proposal of this paper
is that the reason conscious simulations play such a prominent role in
our subjective experience of narrative, even though they play close to
no role in our shared understanding, relate to the evolutionary origins
of the narrative mode of construal as an expert system relying on
consciousness for its inputs. Through millions of years of evolution,
our ancestors' brains evolved a complex network of inference systems
responding to highly processed information presented in sensory
consciousness. By recalling memories into conscious awareness, mental
simulations are able to tap directly into this machinery, activating
the full range of cognitive responses as if (with appropriate caveats)
the imagined event had been experienced and perceived in reality. From
a pure information-processing perspective, this solution is hideously
wasteful. It would be a much better engineering solution for the mind
to operate directly on the conceptual structure of narrative and derive
the appropriate inferences. The integrated architecture of the mind, in
which our emotions, bodies, and thoughts are intimately tied to
conscious sensations, appears to make this impossible. We might call
this perspective “unintelligent design theory”: natural selection,
constrained by prior choices, may be driven towards very local optima.
This is no cause for grief.
Nature abounds in poor design, and the everyday delights of narrative
easily make up for the purely theoretical efficiency costs, however
exorbitant they may be. In fact, the extravagantly idiosyncratic design
of the human mind provides us with a significant competitive edge,
since it renders our mode of thinking far less attractive as a paradigm
for the artificial intellects of computers. We are so obsolete that we
have become irreplaceable to each other.
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