All Decisions Start With A Story
The soldier, the rifle butt, and a better understanding of brain function
The patient—known simply as W.J. to protect his identity—had been dealt a stroke of hard luck. He had been one of 30,000 paratroopers who had dropped into the Netherlands in 1944 hoping to end World War II by Christmas. Unfortunately, this effort would fail and W.J. was struck in the head with a rifle butt when his unit was overrun. His injury led him to develop severe seizures that would plague him for the next 15 years.
In 1960 his luck finally turned. Neurologists of this period knew that seizures were often caused by electrical pulses between the brain’s left and right hemispheres. Surgeons at Caltech proposed a radical new procedure that would separate the hemispheres and hopefully eliminate the seizures.
W.J.’s surgery was deemed a complete success. Not only did the seizures stop, there seemed to be no major side effects to the operation. This was puzzling to cognitive scientists working at the university. If there was no major benefit for the connection between the hemispheres, why were they attached at all? They decided to do additional research. Their findings fundamentally changed our understanding of the brain and cognition.
As a result of this study, neurologists now believe comprehension requires a narrative.
Researchers already knew that brain hemispheres controlled opposing halves of body functions: the ability to move the right hand lies within the left side of the brain. What was less clear was how cognitive functions were divided in the brain. Scientists long understood that the left hemisphere of the brain was responsible for most of our language processing ability. They also theorized that language was essential to certain types of higher order thought. So the scientists at Caltech decided to test this hypothesis by studying patient W.J.
Neurologists devised a test that required processing from both hemispheres of W.J.’s now separated brain. They showed a picture of a bell to the right hemisphere via the left eye. They then showed the word “music” to the left hemisphere via the right eye. W.J. was then asked to choose from a selection of images depicting different musical instruments and explain his choice. W.J. picked the correct image of a musical bell but then created a fictitious story of why he had chosen it.
Both halves of W.J.’s brain processed the information correctly—both the visual and written prompts—but the narrative he used to explain his decision was completely false. His brain created a fictitious story to explain his thinking. It wasn’t a lie; it was simply the story his brain needed to connect the data. As a result of this study, neurologists now believe comprehension requires a narrative.
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” The idea that we need language to think requires us to define what thinking means. But exploring that definition would require a much longer blog post.
Instead, I have a test for you. The next time you wake up, take a look at your calendar and think about your day. Now try having those thoughts without a narrative. It’s difficult—maybe even impossible. Subconsciously, we all process the information we see, read, and hear through stories.
We spend a lot of time thinking about intangible beliefs—ideas that need understanding and support. There is a tremendous body of evidence that suggests these beliefs are impossible without a narrative. Our brains cannot process data alone. We use, or invent, the words that provide meaning to the information we’re exposed to.