How do the stories we tell ourselves shape our experience?

“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” — Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human

This post is also available in Dutch.

Stories fascinate us. Regardless of where we come from, storytelling in all its forms captivates us. Scientists have quantified how we respond to stories by measuring the level of neurochemicals being released in our brain when listening to or reading a story.  What they found is that oxytocin a key neurotransmitter for our sense of connectedness and emotional intensity – is increased when we are told a story.

But is there something else that we have in common when it comes to stories, apart from being appreciative of a good one? Maybe there is something inherent in us that primes us to like stories in the first place. Maybe we all are natural storytellers.

In fact, we do create a story, but most of the time we are simply not aware of doing so. Starting very early in life, we create the story of who we are – a story into which we strive to fit every new experience we gather from the world around us.

The story we create  is also known as‘identity narrative’. Identity narrative can be seen as a component of our memory, although it starts taking shape before we can even remember our first memories. Novac et al. (2017) define Identity narrative as a way for memories to become part of the self: It is our evolving life story that enables us to remember the past and imagine the future in a way that provides us with unity and purpose.

Identity narrative, thus, has the role of a mediator and helps us to organize and structure new information that enters the brain, even though we are not aware of it. You can understand it like this: how you write down a story defines how the reader will perceive it. You become the medium that shapes the reader’s experience. The same story told in a different way becomes a different story, evoking different kinds of emotions from the reader, as for example, when the story of Little Red Riding Hood is being narrated from the wolf’s perspective, instead of the little girl’s.

Identity narrative, the same as every storytelling medium, defines how we perceive our experience. The difference, though, is that here the medium becomes inseparable from the story. In other forms of storytelling, take for example a movie, there is someone, namely the director or the editor, in between the story that is being told to us and ourselves. Identity narrative, on the other hand, is an integrated part of our sense of identity and doesn’t let us distinguish between what is happening to us from how we perceive it. We have already told ourselves a story about it.

In order to understand this underestimated part of our identity better, we need to take a step back and examine two important memory processes: consolidation and reconsolidation. Consolidation is the storage of a memory for long-term use so that it can become available when we need it later.  Reconsolidation, in contrast, is the recollection of an already consolidated memory. During reconsolidation we alter memories slightly, making them potentially different from how they were when we initially stored them.

Identity narrative is nothing more than a narrative on which new memories are consolidated to provide us with a sense of continuity and predictability about who we are. Retrieving a past memory in order to store a new one relies on modifying both the old and the new memories we want to store. And we do so in such a way that we manage to keep our beliefs about the world consistent. It’s not just the present, but also the past that determines how we will perceive our experience right now, and the story we will tell ourselves about it later.

Original language: English

Author: Christina Isakoglou
Buddy: Jeroen Uleman
Editor: Rebecca Calcott
Translator: Jill Naaijen
Editor Translation: Wessel Hieselaar

Credits: Featured image by Fathromi Ramdlon via Pixabay.

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