The Trickster Brain–Neuroscience, Evolution, and Mythology

David Williams’ new book, THE TRICKSTER BRAIN is Cognitive Narrative approach to critiquing literature, which demands having knowledge of recent findings in neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, evolutionary biology, linguistics, ethics, and gender studies. The book brings to the student of literature a compendium of integrated ideas from all these disciplines, while also analyzing trickster myths through these various prisms, showing how literature itself can reveal evolution of the brain and mind and serve as a window into our universal human nature.  It will be published in November, 2011 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. 

“The fool is always beginning to live.”—William Shakespeare

Chapter 1:

Searching For Trickster

Storytelling, universal to all human societies, gives us a way of making sense of the world we occupy and the many contradictory facets of ourselves. Stories are a rich psychological trove of how the human mind establishes boundaries, categories, meaning, intention, and how it deals with conflict. It does this by working through subtle cues of narration, open to a wide range of interpretation. Stories act on us through numerous techniques of connotation, association, imagery, metaphor, plot, and motivation of character—playing off the intuitive knowledge we all have about personal interactions due to the fact that we are social animals who must constantly negotiate our way through a world of complicated relationships. In the human arena, we must continually keep on our toes, judging the intentions of others and making decisions about how to best survive in a world of group dynamics. For while our species has had to confront the perils of an often hostile natural landscape, we have also had to confront each other in endless games of dominance and power as our genes themselves have struggled to survive, reproduce, and make it long enough to create a new generation that will go through the same patterns: learning to walk, talk, sing, fall in love, have children, make a living, and eventually die. And while every story contains culturally specific attributes, untranslatable stories are few and far between. Most stories deal with universal themes we all recognize—the things we value most—love, sexuality, children, dominance, power, the struggle for life, and grief from death. For this reason, we can take stories from both the ancient past and from cultures around the world and feel in sync with them. We understand the problems even the oldest protagonists face. Hence, we recognize Gilgamesh (both the main character and the name given to the oldest intact written human epic) as he begins his quest to reverse mortality and restore his friend, Ekindu, from death. We understand what it is to struggle against the gods, who at times seem to have created our human tragi-comedy for their own sport, without the slightest concern for the sentient beings they breathed into existence. For the gods send their tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, drought, disease, and death, while we humans are helpless to confront such terrors, except in the few instances in which we can use our wits to survive.

Since the beginning of time, our very survival has depended upon not succumbing to the verities of nature the deities have thrown at us. So we contemporary readers empathize and root for Gilgamesh when he dares confront those more powerful than himself. Rising up against hierarchy we glimpse something of the ancient rebellious spirit in the human character that, while being caught up in the age-old primate/mammal/animal pattern of struggling for dominance and sexual preference, we are constantly in revolt against. What else is a struggle for dominance without a desire to topple the powers that be, even as we strive for dominance? And while we need society in order to survive, society—with its inherent structures and rules—can be a bane, an oppressive force from which the individual human spirit often wishes liberation. Yet, ironically it’s always the case that any particular quest for freedom ends with the establishment of a new hierarchical system, a reversal of power that only puts new players into the same old slots. The new players often begin acting in the same manner as the old. Hence, new underlings must struggle to become free from new tyrants. If there is one thing we as a species are, it is contradictory, all of us con artists in a sense, who are also conned. But neuroscience now informs us that instead of the gods having made everything haywire, it is really our brains that are the culprits, fooling us time and again.

According to Science, we are the end result of Natural Selection. We evolved from the same primordial line of ancestry that unites us with all living things. Our bodies and brains developed from older ancestors; we carry the DNA and wiring of those who came before us. The brain itself was never designed, and because of its klunky accumulated evolutionary construction, we are left living in perpetual conflict that religious faith, drugs, meditation, yoga, psychology, and a host of other “treatments” have tried to alleviate. Our brains do not always make us happy or tell us the truth, and one thing we certainly suffer from is bias. We stand where we sit and like to see ourselves at the center of the universe, thinking our stories are the ones that matter—our family, our tribe—we are what’s essential. We’re the good guys. Our motives alone are pure. We are like King Lear, when Regan says of him: “he hath ever but slenderly known himself.” As individuals, we are usually oblivious to the underlying forces making us do this instead of that. Whether the conflict is deciding which of our children is truthful or deciding which mate might be better, it makes little difference, for we often fall, like Lear, into disastrously wrong choices. And when it comes to romance, we can be as deluded as Romeo, moving out of one relationship into another, believing that this new one is finally true: we’ll bet our life on it. With war we again are hostage to bias, because ultimately our political decisions are made “with God on our side”; and with faith in our rightness we gladly give up limb and life. Through all of our strutting on this stage few are aware of the actions of genes and hormones as they play upon the psyche: oxytocin, vasopressin, dopamine, testosterone, estrogen, the naturally occurring compounds in the brain and body that are constantly working to affect our moods and behavior, all of which are deeply involved in motivating us to act, and all of which are wired to act upon us in certain ways and at different times, through evolution. Very few are aware that evolution has created our brains to think in particular ways. Hence, we are all fools of one sort or another, as Shakespeare so aptly revealed, and the very best stories show our folly, exposing our base motivations and hypocrisy.

Stories affect us through emotion and feeling. They work on the subconscious, and they do so because we are wired to understand them. Our brains make and respond to stories. Our minds have developed to think narratively—in parables and metaphors—the language of the brain. Our minds interpret stories before we are consciously aware of having processed them. Our brains have evolved to utilize narrative in relationship to the environment and to other human beings, for survival. Stories, as we will see, have their own stories to tell us about how evolution shaped who we are. Trickster stories from mythology, and the trickster characters in real life, show natural and sexual selection at work. Mythic stories from primal people offer us a glimpse into the mindset of our hunter-gatherer relations: the closest we can get to the past 99% of human history lived in tribal life. Tribal people, who have been studied by anthropologists and others over the last two centuries, are the nearest thing we have to traveling back to the Paleolithic mind. Mythic stories are living fossils. Of course, primal people are no longer seen as having brains and thought processes different than ourselves (as was true in the late 19th century when Sir John Lubbock wrote of “savage” religions). The notion that all humans basically think alike was championed by Edward Tyler, and this idea has only been strengthened a thousand times over from the discoveries of neuroscience and DNA. But old stories told by primal people do reflect primordial themes that are often masked (though not eliminated) in state-level societies and religions. The fact that similar stories occur amongst people all around the globe tells us (just as DNA does) that indeed we are one species with universal concerns, even though the idea of universal human nature is still resisted in many circles. The premise of this book is that there is a universal human nature, and that similar myths exist worldwide because all humans have evolved similar dispositions.

Science rests on experimentation, the testing whether a hypothesis is true or not. If evolution predicts, for example, that a transitional fossil of a certain type should appear within geological formations of a certain age, we should be able to go to those sites, dig, and discover is such fossils exist or not. In the same way we might test for a particular fossil in a particular strata of rock, we should also, with a knowledge of human evolution and neuroscience, be able to predict that certain themes might arise in human storytelling, and that mythic stories reveal something of the way the brain evolved (for in evolution new elements are added on, but nothing is made new from scratch; the old remains). For instance, if neuroscience tells us that that the brain evolved as a hodge-podge, with contradictory modules wired together, we should see evidence of this “dysfunction,” of multiple and antithetical impulses in stories. If natural and sexual selection were important in constructing our brains for survival and reproducton, stories should reflect patterns of thought and behavior that deal with those elements of survival and mate selection. If language and music both derived from courtship behavior, we should see a resonance of that in mythic tales as well. Likewise, if dominance and hierarchy are wired into the brain (as studies in neuroscience show), we should see such thematic elements in literature. Stories are the mind’s way of revealing itself to the larger community and should provide a rich source of insight into our evolutionary past and the nature of our contemporary selves by the very fact that our brains themselves are a product of the past. Since we are the contemporary versions of DNA passed down to us from our hunter-gatherer relations, we should see evidence of our evolutionary past in our lives and stories. I am using trickster tales in this quest because they are universal, persistent, ancient, and continue to be told; in addition, they deal with elemental human functions and desires. These stories don’t go away: they are invented time and again. The next chapters will be a walk through the history of the humanities, sciences, literary criticism, evolutionary biology, and into the new realm of neuroscience, with my contention being that the study of literature needs new paradigms built upon scientific foundations in order to be credible, and that stories themselves can give us an insight into the brain.


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