A conversation with Tom Stafford.
Experimental psychologist at the University of Sheffield, Tom is the author of The Narrative Escape (an essay on stories, story-telling, morality and psychology).
1. For people who haven’t read your essay, could you briefly explain the idea of a Narrative Escape?
A narrative escape is my term for what happens when you realise you are living out a story - it's the point at which you really choose what happens next, rather than just going with the accepted definitions of things. In the essay I talk about the narrative escape in relation to moral choices, and to our enjoyment of stories, and what psychological science has to say about both those things
It was originally a blog post on my personal blog. I guess the idea came from pure egocentric reflection - thinking about all the times in my life when I'd being doing something stupid but been too caught up in it to notice, or been so caught up in a film or book that the twist in the story took me completely by surprise. Other people didn't seem to make the same dumb mistakes, or get surprised by obvious plot twists, and I was wondering about why that was.
3. In your essay, you argue that our brains naturally frame events as stories. Can you speculate as to why that is?
Stories are efficient summaries of reality, but that isn't all they are. Stories have an arc, they put constraints on the future - when you've heard the first half there are some things which are more likely in the second, and some less. I'm sure our minds use stories because they describe the way the world is AND because they say something about how the world could or will be.
4. So if we're in some way the audience or participants in a narrative, who is the storyteller? Is it some kind of big brother type scheme, or is it something more organic?
The real mystery is why we need to experience narrative, or anything. Our split-selves are both teller and told-to, but what is it about the nature of mind that these functions needed to be divided up so that we can tell ourselves a story, a lie or an encouragement? Since it's here and it's now I'll speculate that this is something to do with the fact that the only truly useful stories are about more than the way the world is, they are about the way the world isn't (and so could be or should be). It is this counter-factuality, I believe, that creates a need for a split consciousness, to be both narrator and narrated-to.
This is the mark of true heroism! Knowing who you are is pure gold. I've got friends and family I greatly admire for their commitment to their own vision of things. I feel like I need their example, feed on it almost, to keep some sort of balance in my own life. As for people who are generally known, how about Peter Tatchell, a British human rights activist who is probably most famous for getting beaten up trying to perform a citizen's arrest of Robert Mugabe. For me he's an example of someone who has led their life according to principles. This means struggling to make the world better accord to how you think it should be, rather than letting yourself be subdued by the way it currently is
6. You mention in your essay that Hollywood movies often have predictable endings. In your personal movie watching, do you prefer predictable or unpredictable plots? Any favorites?
The fascinating thing about the way we enjoy stories - including movies - is that we can enjoy completely predictable plots. Hell, we can enjoy a movie we've seen ten times before. What gives? Obviously there's something in us that responds to things happening, even if there is no element of surprise (or, perhaps, this story-enjoying part doesn't talk to the memory part of our minds, so is constantly surprised!).
7. Your research deals with cognitive control and action selection. How do you think tasks like the Stroop relate to the way we make decisions in real life?
It's a long way from the lab to real life decision making. One fascinating thing about the Stroop task is that it sets up this tension between what we do deliberately, and what we do nonconsciously, out of habit. We've made lots of progress on understanding the 'habit' part of that equation, but less, I'd argue, on the 'deliberate' part. If we understood how we can do something deliberately we would understand the riddle of our conscious, self-experiencing, selves, which would be a big deal obviously. In a way, this is the topic of the Narrative Escape essay, but approached from a different angle.
8. You also have done some work with cognitive modeling. Can you explain your favorite brain model in layman's terms?
The best models, like stories, are abstractions of reality - not exact and complete pictures. My favourite models show how something complex can be produced by a simple phenomenon at a different level of description. Perhaps a good example of this is from sociology, not psychology. Schelling's Segregation Model shows that populations can organise into spatially defined groups (men in one room at at a party, women in another; a 'white' part of a town and a 'black' part of town), even without any distrust or dislike between the different groups. The model, like all models, doesn't prove anything about the way the world is, but it says something suggestive about how the world could have got like it is.
9. A psychologist, a science writer, and a philosopher walk into a bar. What happens?
Hopefully all three manage a narrative escape from their professionally proscribed roles! I'll leave you to finish that story
10. And finally, if you were a vegetable, what would you be and why?
If I could choose I'd like to be a Romanesque, because it has an amazing fractal nature. Or perhaps Brocolli. Someting umbelliferous at least. If I'm got to choose according to what I'm like, I'd probably be something like a potato - unimaginative but versatile