Speaker series
Evolution and the Social Mind
Speaker series

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 selves.

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).

Selected Publications:

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

Speaker series
Evolution and the Social Mind
Speaker series