So I had this idea when I was mopping the floor a few weeks ago. (All my best ideas come when I’m mopping the floor.) I was thinking about my kids and how stories have always just been such a natural part of their lives and how now their brains just sort of have this automatic “story mode,” which I love. Then I thought, why isn’t some kind of story intelligence included in Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences? (If you aren’t a teacher and therefore don’t know about MI, click through and read about them here. Very interesting stuff.) So I “invented” a new intelligence.
I called it “Narrative Intelligence.” It’s not the same as linguistic intelligence because, though you can use words to tell stories, that’s only one way. Narrative intelligence, as I conceived it, would be the ability to think in terms of stories, to understand the flow of narrative, and communicate it to others. That communication can take lots of forms. Telling a story in words, in pictures, in film, in acting (with or without words), in music (with or without words) touches on several of the other intelligences (linguistic, visual/spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, even interpersonal and intrapersonal if you are getting into content), but it doesn’t encompass any of them. It’s a separate kind of intelligence. Narrative Intelligence.
Then, like any self-respecting inventor or new ideas, I googled it. Yeah, narrative intelligence is already a thing. Of course it is.
Narrative intelligence is an important part of human cognition, especially in sensemaking and communicating with people. Humans draw on a lifetime of relevant experiences to explain stories, to tell stories, and to help choose the most appropriate actions in real-life settings.
This is exactly the sort of thing I was seeing in my kids! And yeah, I didn’t think of it first, but still, how cool is that? The idea that you are building a narrative of life experiences and processing it in such a way as to make appropriate decisions. I’ve talked before about how the narrative we tell ourselves affects our lives. In my mind, the idea is that by immersing ourselves in the right kind of stories and experiences we could build up our narrative intelligence, could refine the way we organize our experiences into a storyline that would drive us forward to be better people.
I may have mentioned before that I love grandiose claims. Stay with me anyway, though, because this is where it gets interesting (to me, at least).
You know who mostly is interested in the idea of Narrative Intelligence? Programmers. Why? Because in order for an artificial intelligence (e.g. a computer program) to really function, it needs to replicate or at least imitate the narrative intelligence of a human, and this is VERY, VERY difficult. I read a bunch of impossibly complicated academic papers about this because I’m just that nerdy. (This one was the most helpful.) I’m going to break this down as I understand it, and hopefully it will make sense:
1. Humans tell stories and understand stories based on a whole lifetime of experiences. These experiences and the stories they form also help them act appropriately. (That’s our definition of narrative intelligence.) For example, every time a kid is taken to a McDonalds, his parents go first to the counter to order, then wait until food is put on the counter, then take it to a seat and eat. Therefore, the child a) could tell a story that takes place in a McDonalds and have it make perfect sense, b) could understand a story about someone messing up that procedure and know why it was funny, and c) could appropriately order his own food when he goes to a McDonalds as an adult.
2. A computer doesn’t have those life experiences. Each and every one has to be entered into it by a programmer. This is why a program that wants to present a realistic and adaptive narrative in a real-world situation is so expensive to make. Because it takes a ridiculous amount of information to form a single narrative. For example, a story about getting food at McDonalds needs information about the ordering procedure, but also about the behaviors of people waiting in line, which people do the ordering, what variations of the ordering procedure are acceptable and what variations are ridiculous, exactly how you pay and all the possibilities thereof, and on and on. All so you can tell how you ordered a hamburger. And what if it was from Burger King? Does that change anything?
3. Really smart people are working hard to come up with solutions to this problem. These solutions are all over my head.
Do you find that all as fascinating as I do? Okay, maybe you don’t. I congratulate you for reading this far anyway. Here’s what I take away from it all:
Our ability to tell and understand stories is what makes us better than computers.
I mean, sure, my phone can quickly find out what phase of the moon we’re in when I’m not even sure what the phases of the moon are, can multiply 465 x 393 in seconds when I’d need ten minutes, and can remember all the phone numbers when I can’t even remember mine, but it couldn’t explain why it’s ridiculous for a man to sit in a McDonalds waiting for someone to bring him food he never ordered.
But I can. My kids can, too. And they could also make up three different funny back stories for why the man would be doing that.
That’s narrative intelligence, people. And if computer programmers can spend hours and hours trying to build it into an artificial intelligence, just imagine what we can do to grow a brain that already has it. Not like a science experiment. Like LIFE. New people. New places. New experiences. New stories.
What are we waiting for?