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Brain: Narratives, Neural Pathways & Experience

brainscapes.jpgModern research is revealing an intimate relationship between narrative and the physical structure of the brain. Moreover, the relationship is a dynamic one in which the "normal" brain is viewed as an ever-changing physical structure that undergoes constant transformation based on the experiences we have. Ideas such as the neural narrative [David Suzuki] and the ability to literally rewire our minds [Richard Restak] are compelling...

David Suzuki: The Neural Narrative

David Suzuki's book The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place In Nature is a book interconnects a variety of perspectives in science, theology, art and philosphy. One of the themes in the book revolves around the intimate connection between neural pathways and narrative.

... the brain creates a narrative, with a beginning, a middle and an end - a temporal sequence that makes sense of events. The brain selects and discards information to be used in a narrative, constructing connections and relationships that create a web of meaning. In this way, a narrative reveals more than just what happened; it explains why. When the mind selects and orders incoming information into meaning, it is telling itself a story." - The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place In Nature (p10)

The brain is often described as a neural network, but perhaps we can also think of it as a neural narrative. The specific kinds of connections and linkages within the physical structure of our brain quite literally tell a story, the story of why we think and feel it the way we do.

Richard Restak: Plasticity and the Brain

How does the mind tell itself a story? Is there a physiological basis for the idea of a neural narrative? Can we learn to change and transform these neural narratives for the improvement of humankind? If we design learning experiences are we in fact literally changing the physical structure of people's brains?

Traditionally and out of habit we have come to think of information as consisting of words, symbols, numbers, diagrams, and other products of our brain's reading and writing capacities. But this is much too narrow a definition; information is also contained in chemical formulas, electrical activity, and the coordinated actions of neuronal circuits. (p.124)

And while the brain operates via electricity and chemistry, it is also a product of the social and psychological world in which it finds itself. In short, all that we are and all that we can be cannot be considered separately from our brain... This clearly implies a direct relationship between our brain's organization and operation and what we can learn about the world and about ourselves as part of that world. (pp. 134-135)
- Richard Restak in Brainscapes: An Introduction to What Neuroscience Has Learned About the Structure, Function, and Abilities of the Brain

In a more recent book The New Brain: How The Modern Age Is Rewiring Your Mind, Richard Restak declares that, "The era of the old brain is giving way to that of the New Brain." (p3) Moreover, Restak boldly takes a look into future implications of these important developments and begins to envision some of influences this will have on our everyday lives.

The development of new imaging technologies means that the operations of the brain can be studied in real time without surgical procedures. Also known as cognitive science, this field of investigation explores the mechanisms of the brain that are responsible for thoughts, moods, decisions and actions and includes such capacities as alertness, concentration, memory, reasoning, creativity and emotional experience. Through imaging technology we can literally begin to see how these processes occur. While previously focused on diseases of the brain, the new brain science has shifted toward understanding the "average" or "normal" brain as well.

An exciting consequence follows from this new emphasis on the normal brain: Research can provide us with guidelines about our everyday lives."
- Richard Restak, The New Brain: How The Modern Age Is Rewiring Your Mind (p4)

Restak argues that this new approach can lead directly to practical applications in the not too distant future:

  1. Anyone can achieve expert performance in athletics or academic pursuits;
  2. The effects of media and technology on our thoughts and emotions can be understood, for example, how images of violence literally rewire our brain;
  3. Estimating the specific effects of stress on brain functions;
  4. Formulating new "brain-based" ways of understanding problems such as depression, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder;
  5. Developing ways to enhance our sensory capacities.

One of the most important questions Richard Restak asks is, How is the brain related to our everyday thoughts, emotions, and behavior? One important idea he discusses is the plasicity of the brain:

  • We now know that the brain never loses the power to transform itself on the basis of experience, and this transformation can occur over very short intervals.
  • If you want to learn a new skill or make use of new knowledge, you must change your brain.
  • People with extraordinary abilities, it's turning out, learned to use their brains differently from the average person.

- Richard Restak, The New Brain: How The Modern Age Is Rewiring Your Mind

The hyperactivity of our society also has a direct impact on the structure of the brain. A decrease in our attention and concentration has a direct impact on the physical structure of the brain. I've long felt that the idea of multi-tasking is simply an excuse for not having the ability to do anything in depth or particularly well. In other words, multi-tasking can be seen as an effect of attention-deficit disorder:

  • A penalty is almost always paid when two activities are carried out simultaneously rather than separately. (p62)
  • I'm convinced that constant exposure to visual depictions of suffering, conflict, and violence creates dysfunctional circuits within areas of the brain that mediate emotions. (p79)

- The New Brain: How The Modern Age Is Rewiring Your Mind

Experience Design and the Brain

Our experiences literally change the physical structure of our brain. The physical operations and functions of the brain are innately connected to the narratives we create in order to live the lives that we do. Designing learning experiences, then, also means to re-design the brain.

Suzuki indicates that some of the narratives we have created are virulent. This is also true of social networks. A virulent narrative is one that exists in a void - a place where "a story has lost its meaning, its purpose and its ability to touch and inform." (p19) He reminds us that science for all the benefits has also come with a terrible cost to humanity. This means that science cannot be an end unto itself - it can't explain everything - and it needs to build connections with other ways of knowing and understanding the world

The antidote is to craft new stories, and therefore a new brain. If we are finding a new story we are not only writing a new narrative but literally rewiring our brains as well. This new neural narrative causes changes in our mind, our bodies and our emotions. Moreover, it causes change in our behavior and actions and ultimately the way we build relationships with others and the world around us.

The idea of narrative is at the nucleus of what learning means. Learning is ultimately a quest for building connections and relationships that promote stability in our lives.
- The Experience Designer: Learning, Networks and the Cybersphere, p6

When I wrote those words I did not consider the idea of a narrative from a neurological perspective. The brain is a physical structure that is the generator of narratives in response to the wildly diverse siutations and circumstances known as the human condition. It is a storyteller. In other words, an important perspective on learning is to explore how stories are embedded in the neural pathways of the brain.


  1. David Suzuki
  2. The David Suzuki Foundation
  3. The Nature of Things
  4. Suzuki, David. The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place In Nature
  5. Restak, Richard. Brainscapes
  6. Restak, Richard. The New Brain: How The Modern Age Is Rewiring Your Mind
  7. The Brain
  8. Neural Network
  9. Neural Pathway
  10. Narrative

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