As a storyteller I pay a lot of attention to types of narrative – the various ways stories can be told.
Narrative is perhaps the fundamental way our species organizes experience. Event “A” causes event “B” which causes event “C” etc. etc. That’s what narrative is – a causal relationship between events. You can think of it as a series of dominoes falling. Even when in real life events occur in proximity but independently, our strong impulse is to invent a causal connection anyway, because that’s just how we’re wired to see the world. We like order; cause and effect. To our genetically endowed brains, chaos and nonsense are not our friends.
Studying how the brain perceives narrative has become an area of serious study in neuroscience. One such researcher is Neil Cohn, a cognitive scientist at Tufts University. Cohn studies the brain’s preference for narrative through the lens of comic strips. He is uniquely qualified for this area of scholarship because before earning his PhD he himself was a comic book artist, having drawn them since he was eight years old. In the December 2012 issue of Discover magazine Cohn was profiled by Carl Zimmer.
The prevailing view in contemporary linguistics scholarship (Noam Chomsky was the best known pioneer in this field) is that the human brain is hard-wired for a base structure of grammar. Separate languages differ in vocabulary and grammar rules, but all languages and grammar rules are just systems for building sentences and conveying meaning. Any sentence in any language can be broken down into smaller units, such as the subject, predicate and object.
A hypothesis that Neil Cohn developed and has been researching is that in understanding sequential images, comic strips being the clearest example, our brain is using the same pathways that it uses to understand sequential words. Our hard-wired capacity for grammar enables comprehension at the visual-narrative level just as it does at the linguistic level. Coen believes that comic book artists have been unwittingly exploiting the brain’s hardwired capacity for grammar.
Cohn tested his hypothesis by having subjects view a sequence of comic strip panels while wearing a cap hooked up to an electroencephalography (EEG) machine. In classic linguistic studies when subjects read sentences where the words are scrambled to make nonsense the brain responds in a different way than when subjects read a sentence that is grammatically correct. This is also precisely the way, Cohn found, that the brain responds when it encounters a comic strip whose panels have been jumbled and make no sense vs. one with panels in a logical sequence.
In his article on Cohn, Zimmer observed that “more than 50,000 years ago our ancestors evolved the ability to string spoken words together. Much later, they used that ability to create written language. Cohn has shown that the same cognitive processes also gave rise to a visual language – one that can be found on the comics pages in American newspapers, in Japanese manga, and in many other forms.”
Just as Cohn has taken modern linguistic theory and scaled it up to apply to sequences of visual images in comic strips, I believe storytellers continue that scaling up, still exploiting our brains’ hard-wired presence of a base grammar, all the way to our most complex narrative forms – mind-bending movies like The Matrix , novels with multiple characters and plot threads like War and Peace, and intricate plays with multi-dimensional characters and subplots.
Since the dawn of human time storytellers have instinctively grasped this. It was our need for narrative that enabled the shaman to enchant us around the fire in front of a cave on the eve before a perilous hunt, as he narrated, danced and sang.