I was going to title this post “A Hypothesis About Cognition that Roughly Explains Just About Everything,” but I’m most interested in this idea from the standpoint of narrative.
Why do we do something rather than nothing, like, say, eat or breathe?
The obvious, incomplete answer is that otherwise we would die. A better answer is that those of our ancestors that didn’t do anything, or even enough, did not survive to reproduce. You may have been taught in biology that organisms seek homeostasis, that is, a stable mode of operation. But why then do we strive? And why our appetite for drama?
Organisms operate on energy circuits, from basic metabolic processes and fixed-action patterns, up to complex neural programs that take in stimulus from the environment and model it in consciousness. The simplest organisms deal reactively to their immediate environment. They run their energy in tight little loops that don’t compass many inputs from the environment. They usually have very short lives, because they literally don’t see threats coming. This would lead to their extinction if they didn’t reproduce very fast. But they do. They get up in the morning and each have three babies before we start breakfast, and each of those has babies before we finish coffee. Most of those offspring, fortunately, do not survive the hour.
Complex organisms develop more slowly and put more energy into longevity and less into reproduction. They manage to live longer because they have more ways of getting nutrition and dealing with threats. They have more complex energy circuits to mediate their greater reach into the environment. Instead of just respiring and consuming things that they bump into, they sense vibration and chemical signal, they hear, they see, they even imagine and plan. When something impinges on their senses, say when a certain smell hits their chemical receptors, they go into a higher state of energy investment; they engage a new, wider circuit, to pursue, to attack, or to evade. When they’ve eaten or when they’ve reached safety, the stimulus abates, and the energy circuit shorts out.
In narrative terms, when a circuit like this engages, the organism experiences suspense and conflict.
Fiction is a series of two-shoe drops. You know the expression? A lodger is interrupted from getting to sleep by someone dropping a shoe on the floor above, then waits in suspense for the other shoe to drop. His circuit predicting that second shoe is engaged, and he yearns to close it down so he can get to sleep.
Once you’ve engaged the reader, if you drop that other shoe too quickly, your reader will go back to sleep. Likewise, if you don’t drop the shoe within the window of expectation, the circuit will time out, and they’ll likewise go back to sleep.
But why use this circuit analogy? Before we explore more about cognition as it relates to narrative, let’s see how generally useful the circuit idea is for explaining thought processes.
Have you ever wondered why we dream? There are several competing hypotheses but the one I find most credible is that it has to do with memory consolidation. A significant experience during the day creates a circuit in the brain that can’t close and discharge energy. When we dream, the brain explores different scenarios in order to close the open circuit and free the energy it has bound up, in other words, to drop that other shoe. Say we were on high alert because we’d heard a growl in the bushes we hadn’t heard before, and we never quite lost a feeling of unease. Sustaining that emotion is taxing; it’s a liability. Through dreams we put the emotion in perspective as best we can, the brain is altered a bit, and we discharge that emotion. Sometimes, the dreams may be unpleasant, presumably to reinforce the circuit that puts us on high alert for the next time we hear that noise. The fact that scary, traumatic experiences provoke more dreams than pleasant ones seems to support this idea.
This is, roughly, the expectation-fulfillment theory of dreaming:
We’re all a little OCD about pattern completion, but not just any pattern completion. We tend to resolve ambiguity in favor of interpretations that have survival value. One of the reasons that gods are universal may have to do with our tendency to personify natural forces. If you ascribe a low, ambiguous rumble to a predator rather than a distant rockslide, you’ll be more on guard. This has a cost — being on guard and stressed out and sleep-deprived — but not as high a cost as being wrong and getting eaten in your sleep. When people gained the ability to plan and connive against each other, the people who underestimated or were oblivious to the duplicity of others were at a big disadvantage, so we tend to see intelligence, forethought, and malice where it doesn’t exist, like when a tree falls on someone or lightning strikes the lead spear carrier.
I guess music works by the same mechanism. Low, bass sounds tend to be menacing because they’re associated with threat; high sounds with things like chirping birds and babbling brooks. When the thrushes abruptly stop singing, we engage a circuit and become more alert; a subsequent growl in the bushes kicks us decisively into defense mode. We experience this resolution of ambiguity, this engagement and subsequent closing of circuits, on an emotional and a physical level: adrenaline floods us, blood pumps faster, we breathe harder. The growl may really be nothing, the settling of a log; the birds may have stopped singing just because they were sung out. But our distant cousins who failed to experience visceral alarm all got eaten sooner or later. Being able to think things through is a luxury of animals that have the basics nailed down.
Music often sets up suspense that needs to be discharged. A dissonance yearns for a note of resolution. In Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the first three notes of his motif sometimes make a statement with that fourth, and sometimes the four notes together hang for an answer. (I’m not well trained in music, so maybe you have a better way of putting this.)
We evolved to enjoy having our emotions stirred, because it keeps our survival circuits — to chase and evade, to mate, to nurture, to form alliances, to win battles for status — in good working order.
One’s job as a writer is to put the reader through his or her emotional paces. You engage a circuit by getting readers interested in a question, preferably one you sneakily provoke them to ask for themselves. A circuit won’t stay active forever, so you need to open others before you close the previous ones down. All advice about narrative technique is elaboration of this basic model: scene-and-sequel paragraph construction; unfulfilled major and minor goals; foreshadowing. I hope it helps to put it in evolutionary context.
Sooner or later, that’s what it all comes down to, isn’t it?