"The call to adventure is the point in a person's life when they are first given notice that everything is going to change, whether they know it or not."
-Joseph Campbell, The Hero's Journey
In an era of endless political rancor, facts, figures, and sound bites are regularly bandied about in an effort to change perspective and world-view. But as anyone who has engaged in social media debate can attest, fundamental shifts in personal perspective rarely occur this way. Logic and data are prized commodities. But story, myth, and narrative are how we regularly process the world at the deepest psychological levels.
And it has always been so--from tales of ancient heroes told around campfires, to the big-screen 3D exploits of galactic Jedi Knights. Such stories illuminate the challenges, triumphs, failings, and moral quandaries of human existence. Narratives permeate every aspect of our lives. Why else would political representatives scramble to assemble their particular "media spin" after a given world event or crisis?
Often in the modern era, recognition of the power of story has diminished, or has become a source of explicit derision--the notion that something is "a myth," or that someone is "a dreamer." But in reality, story and myth allow us to imagine what might be, to aspire to seemingly impossible heights, and to conceptually connect past and present human experiences.
The Power of Story
Transformational examples of story and myth are myriad and inarguable. In A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens powerfully exposed urban poverty in Victorian England, and with his tale, essentially created the Christmas season as we now know it. And Martin Luther King masterfully framed the 1960s Civil Rights struggle within an Old Testament narrative of an oppressed people having "seen the promised land." More recently, U2 front man Bono persuaded arch-conservative Senator Jesse Helms to support massive economic assistance targeting AIDS in Africa. How was such a profound change of perspective achieved? The singer spoke a common narrative language to the evangelical Christian, presenting the battle against AIDS within a Biblical framework of Jesus healing the lepers.
Neuroscience Steps In
The power and influence of story is now being explored and quantified within the realm of neuroscience. Researchers at the USC Brain and Creativity Institute have investigated brain activity that results when subjects are exposed to stories involving "non-negotiable values," such as, "I'd never hurt a child," or "I'm against the death penalty." To their surprise, the investigators found that these stories activated the "default mode network," an area of the brain previously believed to be essentially an autopilot region that is only active when not engaged with the outside world. Their study suggests that the region is instead working to find meaning in narratives. USC's Jonas Kaplan, lead researcher in the study, believes that it's not sufficient that the brain is simply presented a moral quandary, but that the quandary is delivered in a narrative format. It's as if our brains have a built-in story processor.
It appears that science is now confirming what has long been intuitively recognized--a primal resonance with story as a means of processing the world. It is an arc spanning from ancient epic tales, to modern Hollywood adventures, to the altruistic exploits of desktop Cyber Heroes, with up to 100 million now documented as having engaged in online activities directed toward "helping other people, animals, and the environment." And the computer gaming world is increasingly taking heed--with such initiatives as Games for Change, Zynga.org, and the Cyberhero League.
Story and myth allow us to better understand the past, and to envision a greater future. It is a uniquely human gift and predilection. And recognizing that we are literally hard-wired for such narratives, allows us to better harness such transformational possibilities--personally, and culturally. As Anthropologist Margaret Mead once noted, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
The call to adventure awaits us all--and brain circuits are standing-by. Let your imaginations soar.
Steven and Michael Meloan are authors of "The Shroud," a science-adventure novel exploring the spiritual impulse, tribalism and its manifestations in human behavior, and the intersection between science and spirituality.