Neuromythology: Brains and stories

John A. Teske, Elizabethtown College


I sketch a synthetic integration of several levels of explanation in addressing how myths, narratives, and stories engage human beings, produce their sense of identity and self-understanding, and shape their intellectual, emotional, and embodied lives. Ultimately it is our engagement with the metanarratives of religious imagination by which we address a set of existentially necessary but ontologically unanswerable metaphysical questions that form the basis of religious belief. I show how a multileveled understanding of evolutionary biology, history, neuroscience, psychology, narrative, and mythology may form a coherent picture of the human spirit. Neuropsychological functions involved in constructing and responding to the narratives by which we form our identities and build meaningful lives include memory, attention, emotional marking, and temporal sequencing. It is the neural substrate, the emotional shaping, and the narrative structuring of higher cognitive function that provide the sine qua non for the construction of meaning, relationship, morality, and purpose that extend beyond our personal boundaries, both spatial and temporal. This includes a neural affect system shaped by our developmental dependency, the dynamic narratives of self formed in the development of identity and reconstructed over the life span, drawing on culturally available mythic and storied forms. Narrative constitutes our movement in moral space and may have the potential both for healing and for disruption for us as individuals and as a species, providing a contingent solution to the alienation and fragmentation of personhood, relationship, and community. © 2006 by the Joint Publication Board of Zygon.