Are you a man or a mouse?

What differs our thinking from animals is that we can create meanings based on beliefs, desires, and dreams. What it means in practice is that we can have a dream about an adventure and start building a boat and create a meaning that motivates our actions. We can also stand on a carpet and pretend it´s a boat and share the experience with others by creating a meaning that makes others join in. But due to the conflicting currents between the church and science during the Enlightenment everything relating to our ability to imagine was put aside in order to study nature. In this way, our creation of meaning based on beliefs, desires, and dreams, together with stories that were seen as a carrier of fantasies and illusions, and where the narrative became the scapegoat to all creations that didn´t correspond to reality, bundled off away from science and labeled with the sign saying “disbelief”.

Why the scientific revolution during the Enlightenment should be of great concern to everyone that works with the design of interactive contexts is that no one can tell today how, when, and why a meaning occurs in people’s minds and how it motivates our actions. As the humanities took care of our ability to imagine, where the creation of meaning was taken for granted, the design of interactive media has been left to a scientific sense-making, which leaves designers to arbitrariness and unreliability when it comes to their practice in creating meaning based on beliefs, desires, and dreams.

If wondering why I keep lining up the words: beliefs, desires, and dreams, when mentioning our creation of meaning, is due to the sensitivity surrounding the human meaning-making, especially when it comes to our ability to imagine. Since science knows that the human can create meaning but likes to study it from a logical perspective, the syntactic rules that confirm that meaning have been created need to show commonness with other languages. As very little that the human does and says is logical and where science has a tradition of comparing the human meaning-making with other species from an evolutionary aspect, the last time I heard about the progress to understand the creation of meaning was when a group of scientists discovered that the Japanese titmouse was using syntax when communicating. By combining these, the titmouse created different meanings – just like humans. Since the “just like humans” was repeated through the scientific articles and reports about the Japanese titmouse, the comparison psychology between animal’s and human´s meaning-making is still very strong, which makes me wonder if we’ll ever get to the point where scientists will study how our beliefs, desires, and dreams influence our actions?

When I recently listened to an interview with a cognitive bird scientist telling that one should be careful to teach crows new things as they could use what they’ve learned on something completely unexpected but doves, the scientist said, were more reliable as they did what they were taught. Jocosely, I wondered if the crows would be better off in the humanities instead of watching the doves having all the fun and getting crumbs? But what troubles me is if science chooses objects that act according to the expectations of logic, how can we tell that the exclusion of the human creation of meanings based on beliefs and desires isn’t some kind of confirmation bias under the sway of the paradigm of logic?



The only person who gave science a fight to recall our ability to create meanings based on beliefs and desires to explain what motivates our actions beyond the animal-learning paradigm was the cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner when criticizing science for looking at the human meaning-making as an arbitrary and unreliable activity. As the narrative had come to be related to everything that was authored and didn´t represent reality, Bruner urged that the narrative construction of reality should be studied since it was through the construction of narrative the human organized its experiences and memory. Even if it’s not easy to tell why people say one thing and do another or tell what others are thinking and not doing, why scientists should be excluded from the human ability to create meanings based on beliefs and desires is in that case as arbitrary as anyone else’s actions.

As it´s puzzled me for a long time why a group of researchers who wanted to study games and playing in the late 90s took an almost hostile stand against narrative, I´ve come to understand that if they wanted to stay close to computing the only way to persuade science was to assimilate to the academic paradigm of logic. How they managed to filter through the fact that playing as well as creating games is highly related to our ability to imagine, they picked up a concept known as “suspension of disbelief” from the early 19th century coined by a poet called Coleridge. The interesting thing about this concept is that it tells something about the time Coleridge lived and how the scientific revolution during the Enlightenment had come to influence Western culture. Since rational thinking had created a huge package of our beliefs, imaginations, fantasies, stories, fiction, illusions, and labeled it as “disbeliefs”, Coleridge´s concept depicted how artists during the Romantic Movement claimed to be considered as rational when creating “disbeliefs”. In this way, if anyone had any complaints about the enjoyment of going to the theatre, writing or reading a book, or playing on a carpet pretending it was a boat, people could just say it was a rational choice when suspending the reality to visit the imagination. So by doing a “Coleridge” when picking up his concept, the researchers of games and playing could freely move, back and forth, between the reality and the imagined world without disturbing the scientific paradigm of logic.


When Darwin published his theories about evolution in 1857, thirty years after Coleridge´s rational “thinking-portal”, Darwin deliberately avoided mentioning the human origin. Since Darwin left for others to explore human evolution at the same time the Western culture started to send children to school during the industrialization, Darwin´s doctrines were embraced by a new group of scientists – the psychologists. If our ability to create meanings based on beliefs, desires, and dreams had come to be divided into rational and an imagined world; our thinking should come to be diminished in the late 19th century to a level of an instinct-driven organism.

Since we can see how the studies in the late 19th-century influence today´s view on the human within certain systems where one likes to control (motivate) people´s behavior, the first motivation theories were basically a recreation of ancient power systems disguised as a scientific paradigm of logic. As the human behavior and learning were compared with the animal´s, and the body and mind were separated, where the term “mental” came to constitute a bridge to explain psychical effects on the body caused by our thinking (mind), it was through experiments on reflexes in relation to our ability to associate, the conscious was explored to react to stimuli. By studying our behavior as a mechanism and the motive for our actions as an inhibited want (need), our motive could be controlled and changed by extrinsic stimuli. This led to the motivation theory called behaviorism which method was based on the stimuli of rewards and punishments to change and control our behavior and learning.

Since most of the concepts within science regarding our motivation came to be based on the animal-learning paradigm, if comparing the Japanese titmouse´s creation of meaning to a dancer´s creation of a new movement by enveloping herself in elastic fabric, as the famous dancer Martha Graham did in the 20th century, it´s very hard for science to confirm innovations (the new) as the syntactic rules in a meaning needs to show commonness with other languages. Since our body and mind had come to be separated in the late 19th century, the study of Martha´s dance and the use of elastic could at the most be studied as a goal-directed behavior based on needs in relation to the social and cultural context. Through the help of “instruments” as e.g. eye-tracking, etc., scientists can observe the direct visual agent-object encounter and engagements based on needs that are connected to a goal and where concepts as “affordance” and “agency” are used today to confirm the dancer´s motive to choose the elastic fabric by its properties in creation of a dance in order to basically survive (by getting paid). But what to do with Martha´s desires to evoke emotions of the inner human life in relation to the audience and the influences the innovation should have on the modern dance, science can´t tell.



To understand what it means to study the narrative construction of reality, I´d like to return to Jerome Bruner. If you´ve ever met a teacher or a doctor that listens to what you are telling them to understand how to guide and help you, that´s thanks to Bruner in his aspiration to humanize science. If revisiting the cognitive bird scientist and his mischievous crows, there were no doubts were the scientist´s attention and emotions were – with the crows. The doves were just mentioned in passing but where the unexpected behavior of the crows got all space. Nevertheless, the scientist chose doves. If you´ve read an earlier post, “The surprising scream of learning”, about how surprises work on our emotions and attention, and how it relates to our expectations, even if the scientist chose the doves, his narrative construction of reality certainly revealed where his curiosity was. If trying to understand the preconception about the arbitrariness in the human meaning-making to say one thing but do another, the scientist was a perfect example of this. But if you ask me, I´m not surprised if the scientist is working hard to imagine ways to study the crows and if he doesn´t, someone should remind him where his inner motivation likes to head at. If we look at our motivation as desire-driven and not only need-driven, that´s also how we can access what we call intrinsic motivation and how it relates to our meaning-making. It´s also through the study of the narrative construction of reality we can understand concepts like flow, which is based on a study of artists in the 1970s by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, that describe a condition of complete focus and involvement in a task. It can also explain Martha Graham´s creation of meaning that spellbound an audience without having to create new concepts as “immersions” as to describe something that´s already there but science needs to recall the ban from.

By understanding the narrative construction of reality and how one can understand the intrinsic motivation as reasoning within a person´s mind, the behaviouristic view that advocated the extrinsic motivation that came in the late 19th was the opposite. What the behaviouristic view basically did, and that we can see today – especially within formal education, and it´s ambivalence on games and playing and the use of digital media – was how the package of “disbeliefs” from the Enlightenment and the ideas during the Romantic Movement that depicted our thinking as divided into rational and imaginative thinking, was turned against us. In contrast to Coleridge concept, the rational choice was in the hands of an authority that knew what was best for the individual, which basically made everything we enjoyed doing to become a mean to change and control our behavior: “Martha, if you don´t do your homework, you will not be allowed to dance and use the scarfs” or “if you don´t do your homework, you will not be allowed to play on the carpet”, and “if you don´t stop playing with the crows, you will lose your job”, etc.

It´s not strange why people think that school is boring and the games are fun. But as there is nothing that says that learning in school couldn´t be as fun as playing games, and why the motivation and our meaning-making would work differently, the problems lie in the pattern of thoughts that have evolved during a long time and where we can see the effects today when concepts as “gamification” are created without solving the main problem of a cultural and ideological polarisation. Since patterns of thoughts, narrative constructions of reality, among a larger group of people are very hard to break, people usually try to “solve” it through revolutions. In 1956 there was a revolution called the cognitive revolution led by psychologists that wanted to humanize the scientific view on human thinking by removing the behaviouristic view. Since it´s hard to follow a revolution led by psychologists and where the picture of the two heads (above) is meant to serve as an informal orientation, it was thanks to Jerome Bruner, who was one of the pioneers in the revolution, that I could piece together the moral dilemmas that the scientific revolution of the Enlightenment caused and the confusing debates that surrounded our ability to imagine, the narrative, entertainment, fantasies, playing, stories, etc. It´s also Bruner that has created a gateway for anyone that would like to study the narrative construction as a cognitive process by his theory of the narrative construction of reality. And if anyone likes to connect learning, playing, and games within education, Bruner is the answer.

When it comes to the development of digital media, since the interest in computer´s learning and behavior came to hold back the progress to understand the human creation of meaning based on beliefs and desires, after the cognitive revolution in 1956 Bruner´s moral commitment and work should also create a link between the narrative and the “computationalism”. But what is interesting though is how fiction and science keep inspiring each other when it comes to the development of AI, robots, new technology, etc. Since it was through that entrance hall I came as a screenwriter to study computer science that makes me believe that if an eventual opening to study narrative construction will appear somewhere it might be there due to that someone has seen the television series Westworld and likes to explore how narrative, cognition and emotions relates (call me then).

I had no ideas about how bold Bruner was until I tried myself to suggest science to rethink the narrative. When I basically said what Bruner said and received a warning for saying what seems to be a dirty word: “folk psychology”, I decided to leave science, mainly because I´m a mouse that likes cheese more than revolutions. Nevertheless my concern about that the narrative construction of reality to be explored and understood will never rest. As if the narrative is not recognized, and since Bruner passed away in 2016 at a respectful age of 100 years, it´s up to us to keep track of the narrative construction of reality and if it´s a man or mouse the theories, concepts, and terms are based on, or if they are just cultural and ideological phenomena based on old stories from the Enlightenment that occur due to the rapid growth of the digital media.

Since I recently heard about a course in narrative design within one of the game design programs and wondered how they managed to approach the topic, it turned out that humanities have not only taken care of our ability to imagine but also turned into a library from where the three-act-structure from the film was borrowed and taught. In this way, one can see how the ideas from the Enlightenment and the belief in rational thinking are maintained whereby our ability to create meaning based on beliefs, desires, and dreams remains uncharted. As the study of games and playing will soon celebrate twenty years, which is from an evolutionary perspective, not a very long time if one likes to add narrative to the design of games and playing (as well as within human-computer interaction and education) as an addition to Bruner´s theories I recommend reading David Bordwell as he also bases his studies on film and narrative construction as a cognitive process – which opens up the possibilities to look beyond structures of the ancient media in order to explore the new.

Katarina Gyllenbäck

Illustration by Linnea Österberg
Photo by John Austin


Quotes from Jerome Bruner and David Bordwell on their respective calls to rethink narrative (and where both are saying the dirty word):

“Surely since the Enlightenment, if not before, the study of mind has centered principally on how man achieves a “true” knowledge of the world. Emphasis in this pursuit has varied, of course: empiricists have concentrated on the mind’s interplay with an external world of nature, hoping to find the key in the association of sensations and ideas, while
rationalists have looked inward to the powers of mind itself for the principles
of right reason. The objective, in either case, has been to discover how we achieve “reality,” that is to say, how we get a reliable fix on the world, a world that is, as it were, assumed to be immutable and, as it were, “there to be observed.” (Bruner, 1991, p. 1)

“One reason that narrative emerged as a distinct area of study rather late is that for centuries it was identified largely with spoken language. According to ancient tradition, a narrative was a story told, whereas a story that was enacted was considered drama. The rise of film, comic books, and the like encouraged theorists to rethink things. Now narrative is usually considered a transmedium phenomenon. A story can be presented not only in language but also in pantomime, dance, images, and even music.” (Bordwell, 2007, p. 3)

”When we try to be purely deductive, we tend to start with intuitively salient models, like that of literary communication, with its nested senders and receivers. The risk is assuming that models that are salient for us apply universally, to all stories in all media. We may also miss the fact that narratives, created by people for other people, need not be built out of principles that are logically consistent. The promiscuity of narrative construction reflects the quick and dirty reasoning characteristic of minds attuned to social, not ontological, meanings.” (Bordwell, 2007, p. 51)

”For all these reasons, it seems fair to say that in studying narrative we ought not to forget that narrative can engage people quickly and deeply. A simple joke like the one I started with, only 40 words long, can trigger a laugh. We reflect on narrative because it’s powerful on many dimensions. It rivets our attention; it focuses our perception; it arouses our emotions; it teaches and pleases. But how? By what means? What enables us to grasp and follow a story? What gives stories their enormous power over mind and emotions?” (Bordwell, 2007, p. 3)

“But it is usually the case that discussions of narrative reality lead not to reflections on the negotiation of meaning within the human community, but to the indignant rejection of “stories” as sources of human illusion. Stories, for all that they require verisimilitude, cannot produce the Truth. Truthfinding is the prerogative of science and logic alone – the paradigmatic mode of knowing.” (Bruner, 1996, p.147).

“I recounted how the cognitive revolution had been diverted from its originating impulse by the computational metaphor, and I argued in favour of a renewal and refreshment of the original revolution, a revolution inspired by the conviction that the central concept of a human psychology is meaning and the process and transactions involved in the construction of meanings.” (Bruner, 1990, p. 33)

“Cognitive scientists, in the main, have no quarrel with the idea that behavior, is directed, even directed towards goal. If direction is governed by the results of computing the utility of alternative outcomes, this perfectly bearable and, indeed, it is the centrepiece of “rational choice theory”. But cognitive science in its new mood, despite all this hospitality toward goal-directed behavior, is still chary of a concept of agency. For “agency” implies the conduct of action under the sway of intentional states. So action based on belief, desire, and moral commitment – unless it is purely stipulative in Denett´s sense – is now regarded as something to be eschewed by right-minded cognitive scientists. It is like free will among the determinists.” (Bruner, 1990, p. 9)

“I’m suggesting, then, that narrative film calls upon the perceptual capacities I discussed in the first essay in this collection. But even as we construct the physical parameters of the story world, we are probing it more deeply. We ascribe effort and intentions to the things moving on the screen. We assign agency, we trace causes and effects, and we identify goals. Again, such activities are triggered automatically in everyday life, through a variety of means: dedicated neural circuitry, the machinery of intuitive judgments, quick top-down deliberations, and the like. Again, the speed with which we reconstruct the forces traversing this world suggests that cinematic narration has fitted itself to mechanisms that we use all the time. These mechanisms, evidently, take precedence over any explicit recognition of the processes of the representation itself. That is, as viewers we treat the presentational vehicle (the medium and its patterning) as secondary; we “look through” the how and concentrate on the what .” (Bordwell, 2007, p. 28 – 29)

”Someone might go on to say that my belief in convergences of comprehension is naïve. Perhaps women don’t comprehend stories as men do, and people in Japan don’t understand their stories as Europeans do. Note that this objection does presume some convergence, if not between social groups then within them. Why believe that only certain groups share understanding and others can’t share it? Why can’t comprehension strategies crisscross groups in that hybrid fashion beloved of postmodernists? It’s very hard to avoid some sense of convergence when talking about the understanding of any audience, no matter how culturally localized.” (Bordwell, 2007, p. 10)

“Much of the distrust of subjectivism in our explanatory concepts has to do, I think, with the alleged discrepancy between what people say and what they actually do. A culturally sensitive psychology (especially on that gives a central role to folk psychology as a mediating factor) is and must be based not only upon what people actually do, but what they say they do and what they say caused them to do what they did. It is also concerned with what people say others did and why. And above all, it is concerned with what people say their worlds are like”. (Bruner, 1990, p 16)

”Narratives use folk psychology, which is notoriously unreliable in certain matters but nevertheless remains our court of first resort. In real life, it may not be fair to judge someone on our first impressions, but we do, and narratives capitalize on this tendency by introducing characters so that their essential traits pop out clearly. Likewise, when I say that narratives rely on causality, I don’t mean that it yields strict deductive entailments. Because people devise narratives outside the lab, it’s likely that the kind of causality at stake won’t meet the standards of scientific inquiry. Something like commonsense reasoning or folk causality is likely to be the plausible candidate.” (Bordwell, 2007, p. 3- 4).

”With respect to the first of these, much of literary theory has abandoned Coleridge’s dictum that the reader should suspend disbelief and stand, as it were, naked before the text. Today we have reader response theory and books entitled The Reader in the Text. Indeed, the prevailing view is that the notion of totally suspending disbelief is at best an idealization of the reader and, at worst, a distortion of what the process of narrative comprehension involves.” (Bruner, 1991, p. 17)

“It was not a revolution against behaviourism with the aim of transforming behaviourism into a better way of pursuing psychology by adding a little mentalism to it. Edward Tolman had done that, to little avail. It was an altogether more profound revolution than that. It aims was to discover and to describe formally the meanings that human beings created out of their encounters with the world, and then to propose hypotheses about what meaning-making processes were implicated”. (Bruner, 1990, p. 2)

“Much Western cultural anthropology, for example, is internalist and very concerned with the “how natives think”. But anthropologists´ theories are, as it were, not for the “natives” but for their colleagues back home. It is usually assumed, however tacitly, that the natives are “different” or that they simply would not understand. And, indeed, some psychoanalytically oriented theories of early childhood pedagogy are of this same order – not to be shared with the child. Such theories are much occupied with the child´s internal states, but like the native, the child is “different.” The adult – the theorist or teacher – becomes like an omniscient narrator in nineteenth-century novels: he knows perfectly what is going on in the mind of the novel´s protagonist, even though the protagonist herself may not know.” (Bruner, 1996, p.64)

”Sternberg suggests that by considering three aspects of our narrative appetites, we can offer good functional explanations for particular devices. Curiosity stems from past events: What led up to what we’re seeing now? Suspense points us forward: What will happen next? Surprise foils our expectations and demands that we find alternative explanations for what has happened. Syuzhet arrangements of events arouse and fulfill these cognition-based emotions. Sternberg’s account of the experiential logic of narration fits well with my concern for a poetics of effect. (Bordwell, 2007, p.16)

”But the moment one applies a constructivist view of narrative to the self-narrative, to the autobiography, one is faced with dilemmas. Take, for example, the constructivist view that “stories” do not “happen” in the real world but, rather, are constructed in people’s heads. Or as Henry James once put it, stories happen to people who know how to tell them. Does that mean that our autobiographies are constructed, that they had better be viewed not as a record of what happened (which is in any case a nonexistent record) but rather as a continuing interpretation and reinterpretation of our experience?” (Bruner, 2004)

”Carol Feldman and I were among several investigators to note that autistic children seem conspicuously deficient in telling or comprehending narratives or stories. To understand a narrative, of course, one must grasp the intentions and expectations of protagonists, the engine of narrative usually being the thwarting of those intentions by circumstances and their rectification in the denouement. Whether it is an absence of narrative comprehension that produces a deficit in ”theory of mind” or vice versa need not concern us now – though it poses an interesting conjecture. The point is that without a grasp of narrative, the autistic child is cut off from one of the principal sources of knowledge about the human world around him, particularly relating to human desires, intentions, beliefs, and conflicts. And as Happé and Sacks have recently so vividly illustrated, even gifted autists, those suffering from Asperger´s syndrome, so-called, are forced into reliance on wooden algorithms and formulas in order to comprehend what people have in minds or simply have in mind. They seem stiff and “unnatural” in their social-emotional lives, as they had learned life much as one might learn mathematics. If these findings stand up to future scrutiny, we have learned something crucial about how the intimate aspects of culture are – transmitted – namely, through narratives, though many had suspected something of that order before.” (Bruner, 1996, p.177).

“The three classic antidotes for this peculiar kind of unconsciousness of the automatic, of the ubiquitous, are contrast, confrontation and metacognition. Listening to two contrastive but equally reasonable accounts of the “same” event is a homely example of the first. It leads us to examine how two observers could “see” the same things happening and come away with such different stories of what went on. It wakes us up. Novelists, playwrights, and filmmakers classically use this device to “raise the consciousness” of their readers and viewers – from Sophocles´Oeidupus Tyrannus to Thomas Mann´s Felix Krull. (…) Confrontation is a strong but risky medicine for unawareness. Its active ingredient is thwarted expectation, finding that your narrative version of reality clashes with what subsequently transpires or with the reality claims others. Confrontation may eventually require adjudication of conflicting narratives, as adversary process embedded in virtually all advanced legal systems, but it is so fraught with the perils of conflict that it requires a threat of coercion to be useful. Indeed confrontation – intimate friendship as well as in psychoanalysis – where prise the conscience is the objective of the whole exercise. Which bring us to metacognition. In this form of mental activity the object of thought is thought itself. But metacognition can also be directed at the language codes in terms of which thoughts are organised and expressed (…) While contrast and confrontation may raise consciousness about the relativity of knowing, the object metacognition is to create alternate ways of conceiving of reality making. “(ibid., p.147- 148).

Literature list

Bordwell, D (2007). Poetics of cinema. Three Dimensions of Film Narrative. Routledge. 2007.
Bruner, J (1990). Acts of meaning. By the President and Fellows of Harvard College. 1990.
Bruner, Jerome (1991). Narrative construction of reality. University of Chicago Press. Critical Inquiry Vol. 18, No. 1 (Autumn, 1991), pp. 1-21.
Bruner, J (1996). The culture of education. By the President and Fellows of Harvard College. 1996.
Jerome Bruner (2004). Life as narrative. Language Arts Vol. 65, No. 6, Critical Literary/Critical Thinking (October 1988), pp. 574-583.

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