Compulsive Narrative Syndrome – if it doesn’t exist, it should.

lake gestallt

neuromancer-coverSometimes, Science Fiction gives us a fictional concept that can reshape our reality.

William Gibson famously did this in “Neuromancer“, published in 1984, ten years before the first webpage, where  he showed us Cyber Space, a “consensual hallucination” that allowed millions of people to visualise data and abstract concepts in the same way. Now many of us visit it daily and children take it for granted.

Now Joel Shepard has created another fictional concept that I
think could reshape how we see reality.

In “23 Years On Fire”, the fourth Cassandra Kresnov novel, one of Joel Shepherd’s characters attributes the continued ability of rational people to hold and defend irrational opinions to Compulsive Narrative Syndrome, a cognitive, neurological condition that  produces an inability to process pattern-anomalous data.

Here’s the way the concept is described in the novel:

23 Years On FireThe human brain is trained to look for and identify patterns, but in abstract concepts, fixed and unarguable facts are hard to find. So the brain looks for narratives instead, stories that can tie together various ideas and facts in a way that seems to make sense, to make a pattern. And the human brain, always seeking a pattern as a basic cognitive function, will latch onto a narrative pattern compulsively, and use that pattern as a framework within which to store new information, like a tradesman honing his skill, or someone learning a new language.

That’s why religions tell such great stories, the story makes a pattern within which everything makes sense. A synchronicity of apparent facts. Political ideologies, too. Humans are suckers for a great story because we can’t resist the logical pattern it contains.

When you’re learning a new skill, discarding irrelevant information and organizing the relevant stuff within that framework is good. But in ideologies, it means any information that doesn’t fit the ideological narrative is literally discarded, and won’t be remembered . . . which is why you can argue facts with ideologues and they’ll just ignore you. They’re not just being stubborn, their brains are literally structurally incapable of processing what they perceive as pattern-anomalous data.

That’s why some ideologues get so upset when you offer facts that don’t match their pattern, it’s like you’re assaulting them.

Now that I have a name for it, I’m seeing Compulsive Narrative Syndrome everywhere, (which may, of course, be a symptom of the Syndrome) except that rather than being seen as pathological, it’s being promoted as a good thing.

The current advice being given to presenters at business conferences is to use the Neuroscience of Storytelling.  This boils down to: “Forget the data. Your audience won’t remember it. Tell a good story that they will tell to others”

I now see that Google is an engine for propagating Compulsive Narrative Syndrome. Google’s Personalised Search function means that a Google search doesn’t give me the most relevant data agains the search terms, it gives me the most relevant data  against the search terms, filtered by my search history. For example, if I click search for “Donal Trump Politics” I’m more likely to be offered pro-Trump links if I’ve previously clicked on other pro-Trump links. In this way, Google reinforces the Compulsive Narrative and filters our pattern-anomalous links.

Social Networks as a whole make it easier for me to remain blind to the flaws in the narratives that I build so compulsively to help me understand the world and my place in it. On FaceBook I’ll be linked to people and topics that match my profile and interests. In other words, they match the narrative about myself that I’ve created on FaceBook and reinforce it. If I’m on BookLikes it’s going to be much easier for me to sustain the narrative that reading is important and worthwhile.

So how do we fight Compulsive Narrative Syndrome? Start by looking for the LIE in the middle of beLIEve. If you believe it strongly and explain your belief to yourself and others through anecdotes, stories and truths you hold to be self-evident then you may well be sitting in the middle of a construct produced and sustained by Compulsive Narrative Syndrome.

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4 thoughts on “Compulsive Narrative Syndrome – if it doesn’t exist, it should.

  1. I was hesitant to embrace your compulsive narrative syndrome because being a mental health professional for many years I tend to be skeptical of something that doesn’t appear in the DSM-5
    I also couldn’t find anything about it any professional journals but after reading your articles and some other information I have decided that it makes perfect sense.
    It’s certainly explains the phenomenon we are experiencing of extreme polarities in ideologies.
    Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative truth” is a way for people who cannot deal with pattern anomalies to select the truth that fits into their already established belief system.

  2. I was hesitant to embrace concept of compulsive narrative syndrome because it is not in the DSM-5. But it certainly explains the current phenomenon we are experiencing with the extreme polarization of ideologies. And the inability for people to process any information anomaly.
    Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” is a way for people to easily fit this ” information” into their preset ideas of how they already believe things are.
    I believe the underlying cause of all this is that we no longer think in abstract terms. Abstract thinking it’s no longer valued. I believe the underlying cause of all this is that we no longer think and abstract terms. Abstract thinking is no longer valued. If something doesn’t fit, it’s discarded. Or it’s altered in some way, to make it fit.

    • Compulsive Narrative Syndrome is a thought experiment rather than a diagnosis but I think it gives us a framework for looking more closely at the echo-chamber effect of social media and how it drives division rather than consensus and at the impact of strongly-held beliefs on our ability to be rational

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