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Coffee & Wisdom 02.90: Fire Together, Wire Together Part 2

David Breeden is speaking all week about “Story Science”.


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Hello, I’m David Breeden, I’m the senior minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a historically humanist congregation. And this is Coffee and Wisdom summer version, which means we’re meeting live on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10:00 at 9:00 a.m. Central Time. And this week, the subject has been neuroscience and what that tells us about our brains and how we think or how we are conscious. Yesterday, or on Tuesday, I mentioned a book that was kind of foundational in that, and it’s called “Buddha’s Brain” by Rick Hansen and Richard Mendius. And it really began talking about the idea of mindfulness as a neuroscientific concept rather than a religious concept. The claim of the book is that we can have the same kind of brains if we work on it, that all those famous holy people have. Well, you know, it’s according to how much you’re willing to work on it. But they also do talk about things such as the development of the brain, which it does appear to have developed from what we call the lizard brain up to a squirrel brain or something like that, and then a monkey brain and then the human brain. Our brain is like onions. They have layer upon layer from an evolutionary perspective. And that is how we get to the place where we have the kind of consciousness that we have nowadays. I want to look a little bit at a story today to kind of talk about what I began talking about on Tuesday, which was the idea of how we remember story and store story and develop this.

Now, you may have heard of this story. Richard Montanez was a janitor at a Frito-Lay factory. He was an immigrant from Mexico. And he had a brilliant idea about Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. And he began to try to sell that idea to the corporate wonks up up the ladder who tried to refuse him. And then finally he convinced them. And happy ending, now he is an executive at Frito-Lay Corporation in Texas. One problem with the story, which is, it’s not true. The Los Angeles Times began to reveal the actual story. And it says here from this is from Sam Dean, a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. “For the last decade, Richard Montanez has been telling the story of how he invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. The world has been eating it up.” And then it goes through the story that I just reported to you. Well, even guess what? There’s even going to be a movie, a Hollywood movie based on his story. It’s not going to come out in 2020 as the original plan, covid, et cetera. Now, it’s going to probably come out sometime this year. It has been filming recently and it’s about this rags to riches story. Well, the problem with it, again, is that it’s not true story. The reporter for the Los Angeles Times went to the Frito-Lay Corporation and asked them about this, and they said, we value Richard’s many contributions to our company, especially his insights into Hispanic consumers.

But we do not credit the creation of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos or any flamin’ hot products to him. Then the producers of his biopic, despite being informed of the problems with that story, continued to cast the movie. And indeed they’re working on it now. Well, this is an interesting way to look at story, because if I ask you about this story a year from now, if we did a little experiment, what would you remember about what I’ve just told you? Would it be that a Mexican immigrant claimed to have invented Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, actually did it, and then it became a big controversy. But what would you remember about it? It would probably be the bit about this underdog, this guy who came up with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and then didn’t. Because isn’t that a much more interesting story in our minds than the story of what actually happened, which a couple of of Ivy League marketing MBAs came up with the concept. Some elite university trained chemists developed the product and then it took about six years for this development. And eventually, by golly, it did become a Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, but not in the way that the story goes. Unfortunately or fortunately or something, our brain likes stories that we can latch onto much better than we like stories of corporate structures in the slow bureaucratic movement of even something as fun as Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.

So, yeah, and I think this picture right here probably summarizes the entire idea. Here we have our Mexican immigrant now dressed in a corporate suit, holding a bag of Cheetos Flamin’ Hot. And the words on the screen are ‘The Passionate Few’. And this is what we like about this story, is that an underdog who was passionate about a product was able to bring it to the American audience, which loves it and eats it up. Yeah, it’s a beautiful story and it’s easily told, not like that story of the corporation. So that’s kind of how a story works for us in our minds, apparently. And neuroscience has been helping us figure out why that is the case. Tuesday, I mentioned a book by Kristof Koch called “Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist”. Kristof Koch is a romantic reductionist in that he believes that the brain, that we see this meat machine, does create human consciousness out of the chemicals in the neurons. But he still thinks that’s a pretty cool thing to say. He doesn’t fall into the trap of saying, well, we’re just meat machines. It’s still pretty cool. But he does explain how consciousness works. And I want you to, as I go through this, to kind of think about that story we just heard. Each experience says Koch has certain essential properties. Now we’re talking about experiences that you are conscious of, OK. It is an intrinsic existing only for the subject as its owner.

So it happens for you. It’s subjective. It is structured. A yellow cab breaking while a brown dog crosses the street. So there is a narrative time format to this with specific images. And it is specific, distinct from any other conscious experience, such as a particular frame in a movie. So you have these conscious events occur to you and they happen in a narrative structure and they are very specific. They don’t happen over and over and over in the same way. So furthermore, it is unified and definite. When you sit on a park bench on a warm, sunny day watching children play, the different parts of the experience — the breeze playing in your hair, the joy of hearing the toddler laugh — cannot be separated into parts without losing that experience. So you see how he thinks that consciousness is working. It is actually developing stories in our brains so that those are what we remember. We remember those images from specific moments. So we have: it’s intrinsic, it’s just us, it’s structured, it’s specific and it’s unified. So that’s how our consciousness is not like computer memory. And this is one of the things that Kristof Koch is kind of infamous or famous for, is his arguments against artificial intelligence. In this line of thinking, we will not get to artificial intelligence until the machines can have those kinds of experiences. They have to be intrinsic structures, specific and unified. So we’ll have to have machines that have a headache, that have a bad day, sinus condition and worries and that sort of thing before artificial intelligence is actually intelligence.

Well, this started a few years back with Douglas Hofstadter’s book “I Am a Strange Loop”. Hofstadter subscribes to the concept known as the narrative self, the notion that the idea of the self is ultimately a hypothetical construct, a story our brains spin, which generates the illusion that there is a single, stable and unified locus of willing, thinking and choosing which constitutes our “I”. Koch and Hofstadter agree on this line of thinking that actually there is no “I”. There are a series of stories that are subjectively told to ourselves and we come up with the idea, with the story of me by telling ourselves these stories and having these memories. So me is a name I call myself. The I that I call myself, is a story of myself, but it is a story I’m telling, it’s a narrative that isn’t necessarily true and that various brain conditions, various damage can stop. And as we know, also dementia will do that. So this story we tell ourselves is a story that is artificial in the way that it actually functions. And the more we learn about neuroscience, the more we discover that this is probably true. I also mentioned on Tuesday another interesting development in neuroscience called Project Narrative at Ohio State University. It is a think tank on story science. And one of the practitioners there has just come out with a book.

Angus Fletcher has dual degrees in neuroscience and in literature. So what’s he going to do? He’s going to look at how our brains take in these stories and then repeat them and remember them and how stories, particular stories will affect us emotionally as we go along. He has this to say. “Stories are ideas in action. So they empower us in all sorts of ways. They allow us to forge our personal identities — where we came from, where we’re going. They also allow us to join together in shared pursuits and collective activities, forming businesses, schools and cultural movements. Because stories make life happen, we can never have too many creative storytellers. Life is always changing, so we need authors with the imagination to dream the stories of tomorrow.” That’s his idea. And the book that I mentioned, “Wonder Works”, definitely goes into this idea and looks at how what he calls the technology of storytelling has developed over time. And I will talk more about this book in another week when we have some more to think about in terms of narrative and story. But I want to thank you very much for listening today, and I hope I’ll kick off some thinking for you, how our brains tell us we have a consistent self through the use of story, which is the theme at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis for this particular month. Thanks a lot for listening and I will see you next Tuesday. Thank you.

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