Shared Story

How much are we shaped by stories told by others?

I left that question hanging at the end of my last post. As it happens, the ever-popular neurologist Oliver Sacks touched on it in a recent article. In his 2001 memoir, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, Sacks recalled a childhood incident that took place during the London Blitz of 1940-41. Here’s how he described it in his book:

[A]n incendiary bomb, a thermite bomb, fell behind our house and burned with a terrible, white-hot heat. My father had a stirrup pump, and my brothers carried pails of water to him, but water seemed useless against this infernal fire—indeed, made it burn even more furiously. There was a vicious hissing and sputtering when the water hit the white-hot metal, and meanwhile the bomb was melting its own casing and throwing blobs and jets of molten metal in all directions.

Not surprisingly, the incident was seared on Sacks’s memory in fearsome detail. But after his memoir was published, Sacks found out something alarming. He hadn’t been at home during the time of the firebombing. He had learned about it via a letter from his brother—a letter so vivid that the incident eventually became, for him, indistinguishable from a true memory.

Sacks’s error prompted him to consider how our memories can be altered by written accounts, photographs, verbal narratives, and countless other sources. He realized that “source confusion” leads not only to “fallibilities, frailties, and imperfections” of memory, but to “great flexibility and creativity”:

It allows us to see and hear with other eyes and ears, to enter into other minds, to assimilate the art and science and religion of the whole culture, to enter into and contribute to the common mind, the general commonwealth of knowledge. This sort of sharing and participation, this communion, would not be possible if all our knowledge, our memories, were tagged and identified, seen as private, exclusively ours. Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.

Devoted as we are to the topic of Story (with a capital S), and also to collaboration, Pat and I might put it this way:

Consciousness itself is an act of collaborative storytelling.

So to return to my question, “How much are we shaped by stories told by others?” The answer would seem to be, “Enormously.” And all of our lives are richer for it. As the late psychologist Julian Jaynes pithily put it,

We are all subjects, one of another.

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