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Archive for July, 2011

This morning I heard a story about how a respected scientist is using the power of imagination and narrative to promote social welfare.*  It caught my attention because usually when I hear about those things, it’s in the context of new-agey attempts to further personal growth and achieve individual goals.  (Like my own website, to be honest.)  But now a retired Stanford Ph.D. is touting the practical utility of these “woo-woo” techniques, and attempting to use them to make the world a better place.

The man is Phil Zimbardo, the one who did the infamous Stanford prison guard experiment.**  He thinks he can teach students how, under pressure, to make the choice to “put their best self forward in service to humanity.”   At some point everybody breaks, but Zimbardo believes you can cultivate the tendency to break toward courage and compassion rather than toward cowardice, cruelty and conformity.   He thinks you can pave the way for those new choices by reading narratives about heroes, and imagining yourself behaving heroically.  He calls it “internalizing heroic imagination.”

I love that.

But there’s debate about whether it will work.  Another scientist quoted in the story, Augustine Brannigan, is of the opinion that brains are hard-wired, and that just because you teach somebody a story about a hero doesn’t mean they’ll be able to behave like a hero at the next available opportunity.

Sadly, I sort of agree with that.

After decades of working with a whole raft of techniques to try to change my own character flaws (I tend to be pessimistic, defeatist, fearful, and shy) I can respect the difficulty of changing your basic nature.  Maybe you can’t.  The pessimistic view would seem to be supported by the fact that when a brawl broke out in the hallway outside Zimbardo’s heroism class, the heroism students let a teacher call the police rather than rushing out to break it up and save the day.  Maybe the brains of heroes really do fire differently, and most of us just aren’t heroes.

Yet hard-wired or not, I remain convinced that narrative is a huge factor in how we create and integrate personal identity, in how we find our way forward on our unique paths.  Twenty-some years ago I was a sulky secretary in downtown Seattle, chafing in the face of what appeared to be an incredibly dismal and meaningless future.  My everyday brain couldn’t see any way out.  But I daydreamed.  I journaled.  I certainly didn’t imagine that I was a hero, but I did dream of contributing to the wellbeing of others in some way, of exploring the realm of the psyche, of cultivating spiritual awareness.  And now I find myself working as a teacher and writer and living in spiritual community.

Maybe our basic natures, including both gifts and flaws, are indeed hard-wired–genetically bestowed and reinforced by upbringing and environment.  But we do have the choice to try to suppress the flaws and coax the gifts to their fullest and most positive expression, and I’m with Dr. Zimbardo:  I think stories and imagination can help us to do that.

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*For details, see this NPR story by Amy Standen:

http://www.npr.org/2011/07/04/137531649/evil-scientist-wants-to-teach-people-to-do-good

** When college students pretended over a period of weeks to be prisoners and prison guards, the guards became so brutal and sadistic that the experiment had to be aborted.  The experiment suggests that people will learn to do terrible things in order to conform.  But Zimbardo apparently believes that people can also learn to do good.

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