Saturday, August 27, 2011

Vivisecting Verses - DARPA Investigates the Neurobiology of Narratives

By David Metcalfe

“If I were a betting man or woman, I would say that certain types of stories might be addictive and, neurobiologically speaking, not that different from taking a tiny hit of cocaine,”
- William Casebeer of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Virginia

Despite the fact that it’s readily apparent Mr. Casebeer has never tried cocaine, DARPA’s current interest in narratives is an interesting development at an agency known for unique scientific inquiries. On April 25 and 26th DARPA held a conference called Narrative Networks (N2): The Neurobiology of Narratives. The purpose of this conference was to follow up a Feburary 26th event which sought to outline a quantitative methodology for measuring the effect of storytelling on human action.

We owe much of the early development of the internet to DARPA, along with remote viewing, remote controlled moths, invisibility cloaks and other wonders of the contemporary age. Now they’ve got their sites set on stories, and we can be assured that, in the near future, there will be some fatly funded scientific justification for what we already know. I mean, come on, Modern Mythology and Weaponized just published The Immanence of Myth exploring this very topic, and I assure you there’s more in there than a tiny hit to get you inspired.

And that’s the unfortunate thing about these scientific inquiries, they’re always years (usually centuries) behind the times. I seem to recall an author who spent his entire career developing this theory, and effectively influencing television, film and music with his ideas. Who was that? Something about word viruses? Oh, yes, William S. Burroughs. Who in turn got much of his inspiration from other thinkers like Brion Gysin, Alfred Korzybski, and really beyond all this name dropping, what true poet or writer doesn’t understand the fact that their writing takes on an effective reality?

The Medieval Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno wrote a treatise, called De vinculis in genere (Of Bonds In General), which has been used at the London School of Economics. It may be written in latin, but it details these exact theories and, if our scientists today were properly literate, everything there is perfectly quantitative. They don’t even have to be bilingual. Cambridge offers a perfectly viable translation that I’m sure would be easily accessible via any local library.

In fact Bruno’s theories are merely the quantification of the European bardic arts, Grecian theatre, and Egyptian ritual, which were themselves already quantified, encultured forms of earlier story telling techniques. And that’s just within the Western tradition.

So what’s new here? What secrets of the narrative art will be unveiled in this quantitative analysis?

Nothing much, other than what was once an art-form will suffer yet another reduction into a somewhat less effective means for moving markets, and manipulating populations. And that, in the end, is really the goal. For all the money they spent on remote viewing tests, Russel Targ, one of the lead scientists during the SRI tests, admits that it's fairly easy to do, and that the most telling instruction manual they still have on the subject is a centuries old yogic training manual from India.

I ran across information on this symposium from a link posted by Joseph Matheny (who has himself already proven the ability of storytelling to motivate action) to a brief piece on Dollars and Dragons. The piece contains links leading on to other posts, one on Verilliance, a blog about “Better Marketing Through Science,” and one from a professor of Narrative Philosophy who has been studying this phenomenon for 30 years.

While Casebeer states the purpose of the project is to develop an understanding of how narratives effect the development of terrorism and violent behavior, with the attendant goal of creating “counter-narrative strategies.” If his understanding of a little nip of yao is any sign of his social savvy, it’s obvious that there are others with less noble goals who will gladly leap on these developments and ride them for all they're worth.

Rest assured, however, these quantified tales will stink from being stripped of their true marrow. What a hustler is able to do every day on the streets to grab a few bucks for a beer, or a hit of heroin, and what poets and prostyletizers have been banking on for millennium, it’s doubtful DARPA will be able to add anything new with an MRI or EKG strapped to the head of some already desensitized citizen, or college kid looking for a couple of extra dollars to pay rent.

What we need today is the actual passion of the storyteller, which is the direct encounter with the mystery of storytelling that will be missing from any state funded exploration of narrative theory. I was surprised to read the positive reaction of the narrative philosopher to these DARPA inquiries, and the use of neurobiology, to explore this realm.

DARPA is late to the game already, with marketing firms and corporations having spent millions on testing the neurobiological importance of just about everything we encounter during the day. The inherent ethical violations in this would seem to me to spark the heart of anyone who’d read more than a smattering of philosophy, and I’d hope in 30 years the engagement was somewhat deeper than a facile overview.

This kind of naiveté is what has provided the gate for so many horrible violations in the past, and continues to be a pressing issue. The narrative philosopher comments in her post, “for someone like me who has researched and written about Narrative Philosophy (philosophy involving the phenomenon of storytelling) for close to 30 years, with special emphasis on Narrative Ethics, it is particularly gratifying to watch the latest developments in neuroscientific research concerning the human urge to tell stories.” Really? That’s incredibly silly of you.

But that’s just it. There’s no room for reality in the mediated realm of inquiry formed by government and universities. It really is up to us, as individuals, to tackle these issues within our own lives. Seeing something like this come up is merely a call to action to apply what we already know. You can wait for the official response, read The Immanence of Myth, or get out on your own and explore these ideas within the rich history that’s already afforded to them.

Whatever you do, know that there are powerful influences out there (with a lot of money behind them) that are looking into how and why you appreciate a simple story.


David Metcalfe is an independent researcher and artist focusing on the interstices of art, culture, and consciousness. He is author of “Of Dice and Divinity – Some Thoughts on Gambling and the Western Tradition,” an essay in The Immanence of Myth.

Writing and scrawling regularly for The Eyeless Owl, his illustrations were brought to life in the animated collaborative grotesquery A Serious Enquiry Into the Vulgar Notion of Nature featured at select venues in downtown Chicago during the Spring and Fall of 2010. He contributes to Evolutionary Landscapes, Alarm Magazine, Reality Sandwich, The Revealer, and is currently co-hosting The Art of Transformations study group with support from the International Alchemy Guild.

Order a copy of The Immanence of Myth, published by Weaponized.


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