The Neurology of Narrative
A Presentation by
Kay Young (UCSB, English) and
Jeffrey L. Saver, MD (UCLA, Neurology)
Respondent Edward Branigan (Film Studies, UCSB)
March 6, 1998 at 12:30 - 2:00pm
IHC McCune Conference Room, HSSB 6020
Narrative is the inescapable frame of human experience. While we can
be trained to think in geometrical shapes, patterns of sounds, poetry,
movement, syllogisms, what predominates or fundamentally constitutes our
consciousness is the understanding of self and world in story. Not only
our texts, but also our lives, gain meaning only through narrative-motivated
words, words that acts as a story with a coherent sense of wholeness bound
to a beginning, middle and end, as a series of events situated diachronically
and with referential specificity, wrapped together by a governing sense
of consequence or logic, enacted by agents, and structured by a discourse
that defines a point of view. But while thinkers as diverse as Aristotle,
Barthes, and Bruner have all recognized the centrality of narrative in
human cognition, all have scanted its neurobiologic underpinning. Recent
advances in cognitive neuroscience suggest that the creation of narrative
in the human central nervous system is mediated by a regionally distributed
neural network. Fundamental components of this network include 1) the amygdalo-hippocampal
system, responsible for initial encoding of episodic and autobiographic
memories, 2) the left peri-Sylvian region where language is formulate,
and 3) the frontal cortices and their subcortical connections, where individuals
and entities are organized into real and fictional temporal narrative frames.
To illustrate this emerging schema of how the brain narratively organizes
experience, we describe four types of dysnarrativia, states of narrative
impairment experienced by individuals with discrete focal damage in different
regions of the neural network subserving human self-narrative. Patients
with these syndromes illustrate the inseparable connection between narrativity
and personhood. Brain injured individuals may lose their linguistic or
visuospatial competencies and still be recognizably the same persons. Individuals
who have lost the ability to construct narrative, however, have lost their
Kay Young, an Assistant Professor of English at UCSB, specializes in Victorian Studies and Narrative. She received her Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1992. Since then she has taught at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and at UCSB. Kay Young spends much of her time thinking and writing about happiness. Her recently completed book manuscript is entitled Ordinary Pleasures: Performances of the Couple in Narrative.
Jeffrey L. Saver, MD, an Assistant Professor of Neurology at UCLA School of Medicine, is Neurology Director of the UCLA Stroke Center and Attending Neurologist in the UCLA Neurobehavior Program. He graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1986 and performed subspecialty fellowship training in Cognitive Neuroscience and Behavioral Neurology with Antonio and Hanna Damasio at the University of Iowa. Jeff spends much of his time investigating the neural substrates of cognitive function and novel treatments for stroke. His publications include the book Of Flame and Clay: Dialogues on Mind-Body Interaction, and recent articles on "The Neuropsychiatry of Aggression," and "Neural Substrates of Religious Experience.".
Edward Branigan is Professor of Film Studies at UCSB and the author of Point of View in the Cinema (1984) and Narrative Comprehension and Film (1992).
Young, Kay. "Hollywood, 1934: 'Inventing' Romantic Comedy." Look Who's Laughing: Studies in Gender and Comedy. (1994)
Young, Kay. "'Everyday a Little Death': Stephen Sondheim's Unmusicaling of Marriage" Ars Lyrica (1994)
Saver, Jeffrey L. and Rabin, John. The neural substrates of religious experience. Journal of Neuropsychiatry & Clinical Neurosciences, 1997 Summer, v9 (n3):498-510.
Saver, Jeffrey L.; Damasio, Antonio R. Preserved access and processing of social knowledge in a patient with acquired sociopathy due to ventromedial frontal damage. Neuropsychologia, 1991 Dec, v29 (n12):1241-1249.
Saver, Jeffrey and Denlinger, Steven. Which doctor is not a witch doctor? Advances, 1985 Winter, v2 (n1):20-30.
CogWeb's Bibliography of Narrative and Neuroscience