The human mind is a story-engine. Our species survived by — strangely, weirdly, perhaps uniquely — perceiving the future as something that can be influenced, even created.
In many cultures there is a sense of past, present, and future. In other cultures it is more a matter of an unfolding toward completion…
But whatever the subtlety of time past or yet to arrive, we can feel compelled to anticipate, predict, and — forewarned and thereby forearmed — take action to shape our story’s outcome.
This cognitive adaptation was very helpful to a puny, hairless primate. We may not be able to see ultraviolet, but we can see — or think we see — the future. Over the generations we have sharpened the skill and applied it in wonderful ways.
But the skill emerged more as automatic reflex than mindful choice. Lions, tigers, and bears are unambiguous. The other tribe was immediately recognizable. When there is an unexpected rush of wind or water, my senses surge and cognition jumps into overdrive.
When I am in a strange place surrounded by a strange tribe — most cities, for example — my senses and story-engine are especially alive. The prospect of an immediate intentional threat provokes a particular kind of cognition. It’s similar to when a police car suddenly appears in the rear-view mirror.
This internal engine for imagining the future seems especially adept at short-stories and, actually, rather trashy repetitive short-stories. Stereotypes abound. Once I decide what a threat looks, sounds, smells, feels or tastes like everyone (thing) that shares those characteristics is a threat until proven otherwise — if I take a chance before running away or killing them. For most of the last 60,000 years this has probably been a mostly helpful predisposition.
Daniel Kahneman, the psychologist who won the Nobel prize in economics, has written, “…people are not accustomed to thinking hard, and are often content to trust a plausible judgment that comes to mind.”
I am. Most of the time.
So… I hear about an unexplained fire in a small town in Texas. There is considerable evidence of human neglect in terms of a fertilizer storage facility and what was allowed to be built near the storage facility. But neglect is not intention. Evidently without intention, my story-engine doesn’t feel much motivation. Accidents happen.
This week many of my friends and family are threatened by the flooding Mississippi and Illinois rivers. There is a part of my brain (mind?) that knows (perceives?) the threat has been amplified by a whole host of human choices. But once again neglect is not intention. Without intentionality, my story-engine is mostly bored. Other engines — sympathy, empathy, problem-solving — may start-up. But the story-engine is quiescent. Nature will have her way.
But when two kids not only intentionally kill and maim, but do so randomly and wantonly: while I am 550 miles away my story-engine roars into high speed.
Some ten or fifteen years ago when there were terrorism scares in Europe but not in the States, people who were about to travel to Europe were asked questions like, How much would you pay for insurance that would return a hundred thousand dollars if during your trip you died for any reason. Alternatively other people were asked, how much would you pay for insurance that could pay a hundred thousand dollars if you died in a terrorist incident during your trip. People pay a lot more for the second policy than for the first… basically what you’re doing there is substituting fear.
You are asked how much insurance you would pay, and you don’t know—it’s a very hard thing to do. You do know how afraid you are, and you’re more afraid of dying in a terrorist accident than you’re afraid of dying. So you end up paying more because you map your fear into dollars and that’s what you get.
Perceived intentionality amplifies the sense of fear which stimulates our story-engine. The story-engine looks for sources-of-intentionality that will explain — and allow us to quickly influence — how our story unfolds. Our story-engine is not very sophisticated: it’s principal plot device is avoidance or elimination of the threat. Like the scriptwriter for Texas Chainsaw Massacre, our story-engine prefers obvious threats, unambiguous good and bad, and is inclined to several sequels of essentially the same story.
Reality is not usually so obvious, unambiguous, and repetitive. We need to spawn more sophisticated stories, less pulp fiction, more great American novel, maybe some Russian tragedies or German existentialism. Even some poetry.