THE IMPORTANCE OF STORY-TELLING TO TIME-BINDING
Crucial Issues For General Semantics To Address
-- Martha A. Bartter, Ph. D.
-- C. A. Hilgartner, M.D.
-- Martin L. Stoneman, J. D.
The evidence from many interdisciplinary fields strongly suggests that skills such as making/having a personal history, episodic memory, planning over more than brief time periods, and assigning cause and blame, etc., depend upon the uniquely human ability to make and understand natural language stories. Story-telling plays such a major role in human time-binding, demonstrating such survival-value, that we posit the possibility that this ability has a genetic, evolutionary basis.
The interdisciplinary, non-aristotelian viewpoint of General Semantics -- the field that first defined time-binding as uniquely human behavior -- has made almost no specific testable contributions to our understanding of how we make stories and what stories do for us. However, it does seem clear that story-telling (which usually bypasses "analytical" functions), suspends or even subverts critical thinking. We therefore submit that students of General Semantics need to study and learn to use both the power of the story-telling function and ways to "inoculate" ourselves against it.
THE IMPORTANCE OF STORY-TELLING TO TIME-BINDING
We suppose we should start with a teaching story to present our introductory ideas.
Once upon a time, during a million-year period of human gene-altering called the Pleistocene, our early human ancestors lived in small groups of no more than about thirty individuals. By doing and sharing things together, they bonded to each other; and by bonding more closely to each other, they became more likely to stay together and help each other in the face of danger. When they had trouble finding food, everyone shared what they had; when facing a dangerous predator, everyone in the group either ran away or turned to fight together. Groups that did this successfully raised more young who lived to reproduce, thus genetically selecting the behaviors that tended to improve the ability of an individual to bond more closely with a group.
When a time came that group members could not physically share all their experiences, our Pleistocene ancestors developed ways to continue bonding by making gestures and sounds to each other. They also found these sounds and gestures useful to teach their young about their experiences, evoking in the listener a sort of "substitute experience." Practicing and using these techniques, our ancestors could eventually recount and remember stories about their lives; and they could, using stories, plan and imagine more and more experience; and they could share "substitute experience" with each other and with their young by means of telling and listening to stories. In this way, primarily by means of stories, a group could constantly augment their store of experiential knowledge within generations and between generations.
We store, remember, refer to, and act upon-and-from "substitute experiences" in very much the same way that we store, remember, refer to, and act upon-and-from "real experiences" -- those that we did ourselves. Much of the time, we even fail to distinguish clearly between "real" and "substitute" experience.
More recently, a human named Korzybski identified and named this knowledge augmentation as "time-binding" and its source as natural language. And he and his followers studied the ways they could use natural language to help and to hurt the efficiency of time-binding; and they invented training to promote such efficiency. But since in modern times people use natural language for many important purposes besides telling stories, Korzybski and his followers did not much study the effects of stories on time-binding; nor did they invent much training about story-telling or story-listening to promote such efficiency. We must note, however, that a very large part of our human "learning" comes precisely from such "substitute experience," with all its efficiencies and all its inherent drawbacks.
Even in modern times, many of the time-binding PROBLEMS identified and studied by Korzybski get embodied in stories. In teaching human young about the basic nature of their world, most humans use origin stories, and very many humans have shown themselves willing to die -- and to war with and to kill other humans -- to defend the "truth" of their origin stories. Interpersonally, we all learn to use very short stories to affect the world by assigning "cause" and "blame," such as "Johnny hit me first" and "No! Susie hit ME first." Even internationally, very short "blame" stories get used in more important ways, such as "The outsiders attacked US before we counter-attacked." We all know that a powerful story in a widely circulated book or movie can effect major political change. We all know that the fairy tales told in each culture affect the behavior of the young of that culture. And we all recognize those stories used in the media to persuade us -- to teach us -- to buy a specific product or service or leader.
Even scientists involved in promoting time-binding "naturally" use storytelling. In scientific testing, to check each other's work and results, scientists interact with each other in natural language and trade "stories" about how, in sequence, they set up, controlled, and ran their experiments. Much of this kind of "story" interaction seems necessary before anyone can make a trustable "scientific" statement of statistical correlation. But natural language, embodying cultural assumptions of which we remain largely unaware, frequently misleads even scientists who try to make their discursive statements fully accurate. We humans therefore need
to differentiate somehow between
"substitute experience" intended by the speaker simply to inform or entertain,
and that intended by the speaker to influence our behavior in some specific way,
or to convince us of something important;
to recognize the consequences to ourselves if we do not differentiate (or if no such "difference" exists);
and to find ways to deal with these consequences.
And so we come to some of the issues on which this paper focuses. We already know that most of us humans -- with our Pleistocene genes -- naturally like, pay attention to, and learn from stories. What if we REQUIRE very specific training to AVOID learning from the ("substitute experience") teachings of certain story-tellers, some of whom use story-teachings to negate time-binding and potentially to threaten human or species life? Given this probable situation, who among us will find and provide such training if not within General Semantics? And how will General Semantics workers (themselves locked in natural language) begin to do that?
Natural Language Of Stories As Evocative
Natural-language stories (when understood by us "empathically") demonstrably affect our brain systems. Such language "reminds" us and evokes much the same response in our brain systems as would experiencing what the speaker tells about. In this respect, mathematical-logical languages do not work evocatively.
Scientists need to recognize the difference between natural language and scientific language. Scientists deal with predictability and replicability. But scientists must use natural language to develop scientific teaching stories: "to do this procedure, I first did this, then that, then that, with this result." Scientists should have no interest in cause-effect, blame, etc.; they concentrate on correlations which can be replicated. They must judge any scientific teaching story, like the "Big Bang" story, by the way it helps them predict: if someone comes up with another story that helps find new particles better than the Big Bang story, then scientists must use it instead. Such stories help to train students, but have no "Truth Value."
Example: Creationism vs. Evolution: Creationism has high value as an Origin Story, a bonding story, but no value whatever for (and makes no pretense to) predictability. "Fine-tuning" a story like "evolution" improves its predictability, not its truth. As a teaching story, it helps people find archaeological evidence, and to make sense of what they find. We can measure scientific stories only by how well they teach (predict). Any scientist should immediately take up a new teaching story that makes better sense (allows them to predict better). In this light, the Creationism vs. Evolution conflict makes no sense.
Since we would not expect the rapid growth of an evocative language ability unless such growth served a purpose in the Pleistocene period during which these linguistic abilities apparently evolved, we propose that the ability to learn from evoked/felt "substitute experience" from the "stories" of others -- rather than from one's own experiences only -- would have given a huge edge to the users. This proposal does not make the case (e.g., within evolutionary psychology) for this "time-binding" benefit as the initial driving force for development of evocative language abilities. This time-binding benefit may well have developed as a by-product of, say, tribal urges to share "the pictures in their heads" for bonding purposes, e.g., as in our social group telling today of "war stories." We find it highly probable that people skilled in telling and understanding evocative and natural-language stories would have an evolutionary advantage.
Assuming the above, how does this fit in with ways that General Semanticists use the map-territory metaphor? We find three general problems:
1. The mammalian "now" actually exists as a time "window" -- about 16 seconds in duration (measurable generally for each species, and different). To learn, we need a short-term storage system (memory), with the purpose of associating events. We only Ďsaveí the short-term memory to long-term storage if some learning signal occurs: pain, surprise, etc. Otherwise, short-term storage continues as an endless loop, say, 8 seconds of "past" and 8 seconds of predicting; we can and do look about 8 seconds ahead. So, for our purposes, we can see the mammalian "now" as consisting of about 8 seconds of "past" and 8 seconds of "future."
2. Since mammals constantly make maps that include the past 8 seconds and predict the next 8 seconds, the analogy that accurately describes this process must include sequential abstracting. The map-territory analogy does not deal with sequencing, predicting; a map seems stationary, fixed.
3. Natural language "evokes" (from the prior personal experience/association of the receiver) "swatches" of "substitute experience." The structure of this "substitute experience" usually bears little or no structural similarity to the statement that evoked it, thus giving poor predictive capability, but the current map-territory metaphor not only masks this fact, it includes no way to differentiate between "real" and "substitute" experience. We shall later in this paper present an alternative metaphor.
Stories As Cause/Effect Teaching Tools
Consider the possibility that our primary learning comes from stories. How do we alter our view of time-binding to include this consideration -- especially if we have no training technique to avoid learning what the story-teller wants us to learn? We know of no such presently-used "antidote" nor of any search for one. Did an "antidote" exist to Milton Erickson's teaching/therapy "stories"? Can I train my 5-year-old to learn "about" Bible stories without learning "from" them?
In General Semantics, we hold that high-quality time-binding depends upon our making our time-binding statements as nearly similar in structure to our observations as possible, and such scientific information depends upon scientific testing for "correlations," often statistical; i.e., "correlations" that anyone willing to "duplicate" the experimental conditions could compute. On the other hand, we cannot measure notions like "cause," "blame," "reason," "excuse," and "effect" and they do not exist today within the scientific repertoire and vocabulary. "Scientific" measurables include instead notions like "before," "after," "factor," and "correlation."
Certainly when we humans time-bind in ordinary ways (non-scientifically), by our sequences in our stories we teach each other about cause and blame, etc., constantly --- so much so that we should consider it an ISSUE whether our human/mammalian class of life CAN understand the ordinary world (or time-bind about it) in any other way than cause/effect. Since everyone -- even scientists -- most naturally interact with each other in natural language; and since, in this procedure, "infection" occurs which the participant humans cannot avoid, we should welcome an "antidote"; and it should (and might likely) come from the interdisciplinary field of General Semantics.
Most of the "unsane" historical problems (i.e., war, prejudice, etc.) that Korzybski sought to overcome we find firmly based in blame and anger/hate, which make use of (and may indeed REQUIRE) cause/effect thinking-acting, primarily by way of "stories." Few in General Semantics have tried seriously to address this problem. We suspect that a very small percentage of practicing General Semanticists know how consistently to recognize and avert cause/effect thinking in their ordinary lives (including learning from and teaching with "stories"). Certainly Korzybski did not specifically address this problem, even using the "Big Six" basic principles of General Semantics.
It therefore seems imperative that General Semantics take on a very important task: to come up with some form of training to reduce non-scientific cause-effect thinking in the general population, especially when solving problems. If (as it probably does) such thinking has a genetic basis, IT WILL PROBABLY TAKE VERY SPECIFIC TRAINING TO REDUCE OR OVERCOME IT AT APPROPRIATE TIMES, AND TO UNDERSTAND IT THE REST OF THE TIME. Moreover, since lessons learned in childhood seem to have the greatest effect on adult behavior, we must make such training simple, so that even young children can understand, adopt, and apply it.
With reference to Figures 1 and 2 of this paper, we now present an alternative metaphor to help us to understand stories and how we learn from them. Fig. 1 illustrates learning from the sequential "experience" of a user in sequential transacting with a "territory." The balloon above the user illustrates the Nth sequence of the user's internal experience. To a human, the notion of "experiencing" a "territory" makes no sense without a sequential setting (even the idea that humans may "recognize" an experiential situation without thereby including some ability to predict about the situation, seems a contradiction to the basic notion of "recognition").
Fig. 2 illustrates learning from the sequential "substitute experience" of a user evoked in sequential transacting with a story. The balloon above the user illustrates the Nth sequence of the user's internal evoked "substitute experience." Learning (for us mammals/humans) has to do with the experiential sequences considered "causative" by the learner's brain. In "real" experience, the "world" provides the sequential "effects" to the brain. In "substitute" experience, the STORY-TELLER provides the sequential "effects" to the brain.
For illustrative purposes, consider this story: A lady in Denver needs to drive her husband to the airport to catch a plane to Phoenix. She is just brushing her hair the normal hundred times and her husband asks her to hurry up or heíll miss his plane. She replies, "Iím almost ready -- 92, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99, 100!" They then drive to the airport where her husband just misses his plane. He takes the next plane about 45 minutes later -- it crashes -- and he dies. What will she be feeling about that? Most of us know that the lady may well need therapy for self-blame, even though we know that no correlation whatever exists between hair brushing -- or even missing a plane -- and death.
Training to avoid "automatic" learning from stories while attending to them -- seems essential in critical thinking. Such "antidote" training could prevent unwanted unconscious learning from the stories of a persuader. Cognitive learning may come from any story, whether or not the listener projects him/herself into the "substitute experience." Such learning, for example, comes from PBS or Discovery nature shows/stories, and may influence decisions of the listener only secondarily. Learning in the human planning/decision systems may come from a story into which the listener projects him/herself so as to feel personal pain and pleasure from the "substitute experience." Such learning may directly influence the future decisions of the listener by providing more pleasurable or less painful "conditioned" alternatives.
We will now briefly mention without detail a couple of specific kinds of story-learning "antidote" training techniques found useful by one or more of the presenters.
We base a first training technique upon the fact (well-known to General Semantics followers) that no story-teller tells a story so complete as to itself qualify as "true" or "what really happened." At best, every story represents a concatenation of frames or incidents SELECTED by the story-teller while IGNORING an infinity of other details/incidents. A story-listener may remind hirself of this between each frame of the story, replacing "Then" (or its equivalent) with something like "Then, selecting a next frame and ignoring all the details except as mentioned," or, shortened to one made-up syllable, "Then, SIG." Using this SIG technique interferes with the automatic human tendency to make a smooth cause-effect learning experience out of the sequences of the story as though the story reproduced ALL of the experience.
We proffer the metaphor that the frames of the story as understood by the "left brain" are normally put into touching sequences in the "16-second window" of the "right brain" -- and so are felt as normal mammalian cause-effect for learning purposes; when we use a technique like the SIG technique, we force the frames of the story into NON-adjoining, NON-touching sequences in the "right brain."
We base a second training technique upon a distinction we made earlier in this paper between "cognitive" learning and "decision" learning, i.e., that the latter probably requires some form of "empathy/identity" with a story character so that the listener experiences the pain/pleasure of a protagonist. We thus design the training to improve the ability of the listener, even "under fire," to do some very important things:
keep the images "out there" and unconnected with the listener (in the "Lady from Denver" story, refrain from empathizing with her);
focus on the techniques the story-teller uses to "influence" the listener;
remember that the listener's feelings of pain and pleasure may correlate with the wishes of the story-teller rather than with "true life experiences."
In learning about life through experiences, we almost never have a script, and therefore very little danger of someone manipulating our experience. (Thatís why "life" looks so confusing, and why we LOVE stories that "teach" us "what really happened.") For example, the mother of one of the authors recounted this tale:
She lived in Berkeley during the 60s, when many student protest groups organized "demonstrations" to which the media was always invited (and the failure of the media to show up stopped the demonstration). A small, elderly lady, she was walking along Shattuck Avenue when suddenly a mass of shouting, placard-waving young people came charging at her. She dove into the nearest doorway, and was able to avoid being really hurt, although she was shaken and somewhat bruised. But she did not "know what had happened," because the whole experience was so confusing, and so apparently senseless, that she only knew she had been jostled and frightened. That night, she explained, she watched the news on TV to learn what she had been involved in, so she could "understand" her own experience.
The TV, as a storyteller, provided a "script" and "motives" -- and could "interpret" (control) the story. Thus the immediate possibility of Unfair Persuasion combines with Loss of Analytical Ability. This combination predictably leads to danger. Without special techniques that specifically deal with storytelling, the listener has no control over his/her own reaction.
Some Potential Effects On GS Should Our Proposals Appear Valid
General Semantics might align itself with emerging interdisciplinary scientific viewpoints about human behavior and languaging, especially evolutionary psychology. General Semantics might even foster research within evolutionary psychology in attempts to identify explicit species-wide genetic behaviors in areas of story-telling, blame, and cause-effect; and then General Semantics could provide species-wide training to foster in humans the necessary skills and antidotes to handle stories, blame, hate, prejudice, and other such "cause-effect" areas in "saner" ways (as Korzybski might have wished), so as to better foster such goals as peace, freedom, democracy, autonomy, and "siblinghood."
Barkow, Jerome H., Leda Cosmides and John Tooby. The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairytales. New York: Random/Vintage, 1977.
Doty, William G. Mythography: The Study of Myths and Rituals. Tuscaloosa: Univ. of Alabama Press, 1986.
Erickson, Milton H. The Collected Papers of Milton H. Erickson on Hypnosis. 4 Vols. Irvington Publishers, 1980.
Fleming, Charles A. "Understanding Propaganda from a G. S. Perspective." ETC: A Review of General Semantics. Vol 52, No. 1 (Spring 1995): 3-12.
Goethals, Gregor T. The TV Affair: Worship at the Video Altar. Boston: Beacon, 1980.
Hall, Edward T. The Silent Language. New York: Anchor Doubleday, 1973.
Jewett, Robert, and John Shelton Lawrence. The American Monomyth. Garden City NY: Anchor/Doubleday, 1977.
Jung, Carl G. and Marie-Louise von Franz, eds. Man and His Symbols. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964.
Korzybski, Alfred. Collected Writings, 1920-1950. M. Kendig, ed. Englewood, N.J. Institute of General Semantics, 1990.
__________. Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-aristotelian Systems and General Semantics. Chicago: International Non-aristotelian Publishing Co., 1933.
Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Routledge, 1982.
Zipes, Jack. Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization. New York: Methuen, 1983.