Our Brains are Story-Making Machines

Take a look at these two images. If you give it a second, odds are your brain will start to construct a story as to why those images are next to each other. Is there a connection? Is there a story here?

It isn’t too hard to start to imagine how these two images could tell a story, but according to David Linden, a  professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, your brain will automatically start trying to figure out a narrative even when I show you something like this.

No matter how improbable, your brain wants to make a connection.

Linden says you can’t help it. It’s what comes naturally. Linden believes the brain is hard-wired to tell stories.  It’s a subconscious function that automatically kicks in. A survival mechanism. After all if you see this:

And then this.

Well, it’s nice to have a brain that is quick to analyze cause and effect.

And isn’t that the essence of story. Connecting one action and to another to another, all the while examining why and how and what to help us figure out how to live?

In my last post, I looked at the book “How Pictures Work” by Molly Bang, where she does a great analysis of how our minds can make stories out of abstract shapes if they are in the right relationship to each other.

Simply placing images side-by-side will kick speculation into gear. But what happens when the relationship gets more complex–as with the Heider-Simmel animation?

Developed in 1944, Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel, experimental psychologists at Smith College, created it to investigate how our brain can make complex inferences from relatively little data.

The two investigators simply told their subjects to watch the (very short) movie and “write down what happened.” Almost every one of the undergraduates saw the shapes as animate characters in a relationship.

I won’t tell you what most of them said, but there’s a good summary of the experiment and some of the findings here. But before you go, check out the animation yourself and see what your story-making mind tells you.

If you want to share, I’d love to hear the story that you saw!






6 responses to “Our Brains are Story-Making Machines

  1. Interesting! I’ve read one theory about dreams which said that the narrative of dreams is simply our desire to make stories out of random images firing in our brains as we sleep. So much for Freud! What I saw in the animation: clearly a David and Goliath story – small circle, small triangle doing their best to avoid the bullying of Big Triangle. Succeeding!

  2. Cool, Julie! That’s interesting. I didn’t see the David and Goliath, but it’s definitely there. I saw sexual gender dynamics. The Big Triangle is definitely a bully. I couldn’t help but read the triangles as male and the circle as female.

  3. The big triangle is a bully, and I’m glad the small triangle and circle got away from him. And I wasn’t surprised when he broke his own structure, like children breaking their own toys when they can’t control their anger. Reminds me of another unpleasant individual who is supposedly leading our country.

  4. Ha! I felt mad at the big triangle, too, and it was just geometric shapes moving around. I was wanting to add a sort of abstract wave of hair to the big triangle.

  5. Pingback: It Takes Two: How to kickstart your story-making brain | Books Around The Table

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