“Scripts, frames and mental models are tools of understanding”, Vera Nünning

Vera Nünning foi uma das oradoras convidadas do encontro Matters of Culture, que decorreu dia 9 de Fevereiro de 2016, proferindo um ‘statement’ sobre “Interfaces between Culture, Cognition and Narrative”.

The following theses are based on a few presuppositions:
Although my conception of culture is shaped by the semiotic approach to culture, according to which three dimensions of culture (i.e. the material, social and mental dimension) can be distinguished, the following observations will focus mainly on the mental (cognitive) dimension of culture and its relation to the material dimension, e.g. in the form of texts and narratives. In addition, the term culture serves as a shorthand for the pluralities of (sub)cultures prevalent in a given community, which are defined by transcultural relations and by continuous change.
In addition, I conceptualise minds as embodied minds (sensu Varela, Thompson, and Rosch, 1991) and the brain as a cultural organ characterised by plasticity and molded by cultural factors; my epistemological framework is that of enactivism.

(1) There is a reciprocal relationship between culture and cognition (this is a minor supplement to the brilliant exposition by Gerhard Lauer).
Scripts, frames and mental models are tools of understanding. The scripts and schemata that help us to understand human beings and sequences of action are shaped by culture: e.g. by tacit and explicit knowledge, by hierarchies of values and attitudes. In addition, these cognitive tools are acquired – and modified, revised and changed – not only in the process of acculturation, but also by dealing with the challenges of one’s daily life in a given culture, by social practices and the experiences that individuals (and communities) make throughout their lives.
There is a reciprocal relationship between culture and cognition in that, on the one hand, the experiences that are possible within specific cultures shape our brains and our minds, our scripts and frames. On the other hand, these experiences are processed and interpreted by means of cognitive scripts and frames; the way we act and form our environment is influenced by the use of these scripts. Cognition shapes culture just as much as culture shapes cognition.

(2) Narrative is one of the major ways of understanding life worlds (Jerome Bruner, Raymond Mar).
Daily encounters, the vicissitudes of life, human beings and events are interpreted by means of narrative. Cognitive scripts were reconceptionalised by Roger Schank and Robert Abelson as narrative scripts, or a “story skeleton” which provides a basic tool of interpretation. In addition to such scripts which can be used in standard situations, complex narrative modes of understanding provide the means to understand complex situations. Narratives can be regarded as “pattern-forming cognitive system[s]” (David Herman) or “high-level generative models” (Hirsh, Mar, Peterson). The modes of interpretation available to individuals are shaped by cultures and the stock of stories which are in circulation in given communities or part of cultural memories. To provide an example: the ability to construct one’s life story is acquired in several steps throughout adolescence and formed by culturally accepted modes of narrative (e.g. implied importance of temporality and causality; individual vs. collective agency) and by (auto)biographic stories (Katherine Nelson, Tilman Habermas).

(3) If narrative is one of the major modes of understanding live worlds, there are two implications to be considered:
First, narrative competence, the ability to understand and create narratives, is an important means of social cognition; it encompasses more than what is called ‘theory of mind’, and is crucial for empathy and perspective taking.
Second, is desirable to know a broad variety of narratives (if possible from different times and cultures), featuring different modes of interpretation, since this knowledge can enlarge and refine one’s tools for understanding.

(4) Fictional stories (particularly novels) can be important means of enhancing social cognition.
Many fictional stories encourage readers to use their interpersonal abilities, their empathy, their ‘theory of mind’ and perspective taking in order to make sense of fictional characters and fictional worlds. Depending on the complexity of the story and of the narrative conventions inducing or blocking perspective taking and encouraging readers to empathise with or distance themselves from the characters, works of fiction can refine readers’ abilities of social cognition.

(5) (Fictional) narratives are a powerful means of persuasion and of cultural change.
Empirical studies have shown that, whether fictional or factual, narratives can influence readers’ cultural encyclopaedia and attitudes. By influencing listeners and readers, narratives are an important means of shaping cultures. Stories can confirm, perpetuate, revise, subvert or change implicit knowledge, hierarchies of values, and attitudes.

(6) Fictional stories are potentially more effective than overt means of teaching.
Since most adult readers know that fiction is ‘just’ fiction, i.e. something that is imagined and not meant to provide factual knowledge, they usually think themselves immune to the persuasive power of fiction and do not consciously scrutinise and check the implied beliefs and the values embedded in certain stories. If they read fiction as fiction, i.e. for pleasure and in a disinterested way, and immerse themselves in the fictional world, they fulfil an important pre-condition for changing their beliefs (Melanie Green, Arthur Jacobs). It is likely that they integrate the facts and attitudes encountered in such narratives in their knowledge stores. In addition, many of the barriers impeding empathy and perspective taking are either diminished or not applicable when reading fictional stories. For instance, reading fiction is ‘safe’; one does not run the risk of social consequences when trying out different attitudes or experiences.

(7) Despite the productiveness of research in such fields as cognitive narratology and cognitive psychology in general and the effects of reading in particular, much more work needs to be done, especially in the following areas:
Particularly in the present situation, when more and more (young) adults read fewer novels, while spending more and more time using the new media, we need more research on the effects of different modes of reading, for instance on the differences of the consequences of ‘deep reading’ which accompanies immersion and the kind of interrupted ‘skim-reading’ that is encouraged by the new (social) media.
Although there are many productive studies in the field of ‘ethical criticism’, it would be profitable to know even more about embedded values in narratives: If narratives are persuasive and can change readers’ encyclopaedia and attitudes, we need to know more about what kinds of knowledge and values are embedded in particular narratives. What are the dominant attitudes and values that are encouraged by reading specific (popular) texts and genres? Which tools are most promising in order to identify such embedded values?
We also need more research on the kinds of narratives and narrative conventions which heighten the persuasiveness of particular texts. There are many empirical studies on the effects of narratives and on states of mind which heighten or diminish the persuasiveness of a text. However, up to now there have been only few philological or narratological studies which focus on the persuasive potential of textual features, and even fewer collaborative studies by researchers from the fields of cognitive psychology and literary studies.

Selected Literature

Bruner, Jerome. „The Narrative Construction of Reality.” Critical Enquiry 18.1 (1991), 1-21.
Mar, Raymond A., Keith Oatley, Jacob Hirsh, Jennifer dela Paz and Jordan B. Peterson. “Bookworms versus Nerds. Exposure to Fiction versus Non-Fiction, Divergent Associations with Social Ability, and the Simulation of Fictional Social Worlds.” Journal of Research in Personality 40 (2006): 694-712.
Habermas, Tilmann and Susan Bluck. “Getting a Life. The Emergence of the Life Story in Adolescence.” In: Psychological Bulletin 126 (2000): 748-769.
Green, Melanie C. and Karen E. Dill. “Engaging with Stories and Characters: Learning, Persuasion, and Transportation into Narrative Worlds.” Karen E. Dill (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Media Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. 449-61.
Herman, David. Storytelling and the Sciences of Mind. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013.
Hirsh, Jacob B., Raymond A. Mar, and Jordan B. Peterson. “Personal Narratives as the Highest Level of Cognitive Integration.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 36 (2013): 216-7.
Kidd, David C. and Emanuele Castano, “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind.” Science 342 (2013): 377-81.
Nelson, Katherine, “Narrative and Self, Myth and Memory: Emergence of the Cultural Self.” Fivush, Robyn and Catherine A. Haden (eds), Autobiographical Memory and the Construction of a Narrative Self: Developmental and Cultural Perspectives. Mahwah: NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003: 3-28.
Nünning, Vera. Reading Fictions, Changing Minds – The Cognitive Value of Fiction (Schriften des Marsiliuskollegs, Bd. 11). Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2014.
Oatley, Keith. “Why Fiction May Be Twice as True as Fact: Fiction as Cognitive and Emotional Stimulation.” Review of General Psychology 3 (1999): 101-117.
Schank, Roger C. and Robert P. Abelson. “Knowledge and Memory: The Real Story.” Robert S. Wyer (ed.), Advances in Social Cognition XIV. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlsbaum, 1995. 1-86.
Varela, Francisco J., Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 1991.


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