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The Stories Artists Tell Themselves- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

The Stories Artists Tell Themselves- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

The Stories Artists Tell Themselves

Recently an article appeared in the online publication of an institution I had a long association with, a provocative and unabashedly philosophical treatise by the president of the Santa Fe Institute called, “The End of Narrative.”

This at first sounded like an attack on the idea of story, which seems very prevalent in how we organize information and make sense of our lives.

Nancy and I have been fans of “story” for a long time and we believe it is central to the human experience, so this title struck us negatively from the get-go.

The concept of the Hero’s Journey that threads through so much of literature (and other media) is a key part of Nancy’s conception of human growth and experience, so we were dubious about a case being made for dispensing with narrative or story. In fact, we’ve got a book of stories coming soon. 

But since the author is someone I respect, I plowed my way through. On the way, I decided that “narrative” is different than “story.”

Narrative is a kind of post-processing applied to historical events. It is going beyond “this happened, then this happened, then this other thing happened” to “this happened, it caused this thing to happen, which caused this other thing to happen.”

It is an interpretation of events obtained by applying causal reasoning. But the reasons for things are tricky, which is why statisticians hammer on the idea that “Correlation is not causality.” If A causes B and C, B and C are correlated, not causal. 

An example: If nightfall causes the moon to come out and the birds to stop singing, the moon did not necessarily cause the birds to stop singing. 

Birds and moonlight

Compulsive scientists like Bruce lose sleep over designing experiments to tease out causality, but some of those experiments are practically impossible, particularly in complex and highly interconnected systems.

Narrative history is the generation of concise explainability for things that happened in the past. We encounter it every day, particularly in the business feeds that inundate us online.

“Market drops on profit-taking”

“Unrest in Country X causing oil futures to rise.”

“Investors losing faith in Technology Y, share prices take a beating.”

Nobody actually knows whether these explanations are true, since we are unable to access the inner workings of statistical numbers of people involved in the actions in question. There are occasional interviews, but I suspect that most headlines of this nature are made up. This is particularly true for day-to-day events, statistics are helpful longer-term.

In fact, one could probably write an artificially intelligent (AI) computer program to generate such headlines. Or maybe an ANVI program, for artificially-not-very-intelligent. I suspect these programs could do just as well as the writers of market headlines. Some things have so many reasons behind them they may as well have none at all. It might just be easier to say,

“Zeus drove the market downwards today because he felt like it.”

I believe story is the narrative we apply to our own lives to make sense of what we’ve experienced. It is a way of remembering things by building a context around them, such as “My wife/husband married me because I am funny/rich/creative/passive/strong/etc.” It is about dealing with being uncomfortable with the unknown combined with wanting to learn from past events. 

Story is a double-edged sword. If we have no story, we experience life as a kind of fog of disconnected events, a stick carried by the current. If our life is dominated by story, we miss things that don’t fit in and trudge forward into inevitability, like a donkey with blinders on. It is a fine and unstable balancing act.

I believe my colleague’s writing about the end of narrative is addressed at the over-dominance of narrative, of interpretations of what happened historically and “why.”

Plenty of very smart people, from Herodotus to Spengler, have overlain history with powerful and compelling narratives, so much so that avoiding historical interpretations is like the difficulty of obeying the injunction, “Try not to think about an elephant.”

Elephant family on African savannah

As artists and human beings, we compose our own stories, our own private historical narratives. Whether they are “true” or not is less important than whether or not they are useful because they are about us and not other people. They should help us live our lives, to aid in deciding what to do next, and perhaps to bring joy.

Some stories we tell ourselves, like historical narrative out in the world, can be hard to separate oneself from.  

What stories are you telling yourself? Are they holding you back? Are they preventing you from seeing surprising and wonderful things?

With gratitude,

Bruce & Nancy


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