BLP Conversations: Amanda Dennis and Dr. Molly J. Crockett

Welcome to the BLP Conversations series, featuring dialogues between people whose lifework, like BLP’s mission, explores the creative territory at the intersection of the arts and sciences, and has become a testament to how science and the humanities can join forces to educate and inspire. This online series is inspired by E.O. Wilson and Robert Hass, whose talk about the connections between science and the arts was published in our book The Poetic Species: A Conversation with Edward O. Wilson and Robert Hass.

In this conversation Amanda Dennis, author of Her Here, and Dr. Molly J. Crockett, associate professor of psychology at Princeton, discuss selfhood, the connection between narrative self-making and mental health, and the complicated nature of truth. Their conversation is part of the BLP Conversations series from Bellevue Literary Press, featuring dialogues that explore the creative territory at the intersection of the arts and sciences.

Amanda Dennis: When I was an idealistic and impractical teenager, I dreamed of becoming a neuroscientist in the service of philosophy. The idea was that I would look for brain regions that support philosophical and literary ideas about how consciousness works. For example: is there a part of the brain that corresponds to the Freudian subconscious? Is there a neural circuitry of selfhood? I’m struck by how your lab’s findings align with Adam Smith’s ideas about morality, how new experimental evidence bears out an eighteenth-century concept of conscience as an internal “impartial observer,” silently judging our behavior.

Much of what interested me when I was writing Her Here was the role stories have in constructing an idea of the self and, in turn, the self’s perception of the world. I remain amazed by how powerful narratives can be in shaping experience, and it felt important to delve into how stories—particularly stories about the self—get made and unmade. A line from Baldwin could have been my rallying cry: “I am too various to be trusted.” The I, the self, can surprise us, and so we need to make sense of our actions. The self isn’t stable, so we fashion it through narrative to be able to exist in society, with others.

Your latest research focuses on moral behavior—an important aspect of relational life—and on the stories we tell ourselves about our moral decisions to maintain a positive image of ourselves as moral beings. I’m interested in the Bayesian framework you’re using, which supposes that our inferences about the world have the purpose of making new observations less surprising. We tell stories not only in order to live, but to make our experience seem consistent. Could you tell me what drew you to study narrative in conjunction with moral decision-making? And how does one study stories quantitatively?

Dr. Molly J. Crockett: I started thinking about narrative while chewing on a longstanding puzzle in my field: why is our moral self-image sometimes disconnected from our actual behavior? How can we explain why some people behave like total jerks but feel like heroes, while others flagellate themselves for tiny mistakes? When does our self-knowledge become distorted? My thoughts on these questions have been profoundly influenced by the work of Kate McLean and Moin Syed, who propose that narratives operate as a channel for translating cultural norms into personal identity. Cultural “master narratives” dictate how to live a good life, and we use these templates to story our own experiences. In this sense, the self is “co-authored”: we narrate ourselves into existence alongside other people’s ideas of how we ought to be, and most of the time, we’re not even aware this is happening. I loved how Her Here illustrates this multilayered nature of self-creation: how Elena seeks to recover herself by reconstructing Ella’s reconstruction (and deconstruction) of her own experience.

So how does this relate to morality? Because the societal imperative to “be a good person” is so strong, we’re highly motivated to shoehorn our experiences into stories with clearly defined heroes and villains, even though reality is far more complicated. I worry that this means we miss out on opportunities to learn and forgive. Currently, my lab is testing the idea that narrative construction is a motivated process. We invite people to make decisions that benefit themselves while harming another person, and then ask them to narrate what happened. Separately, we measure an audience’s impressions of the narrators based on the stories they tell: how likable is this person? How honest? Our work so far suggests that when constructing moral narratives, people seek to balance two goals that sometimes conflict: communicating truthfully, and presenting themselves in a positive light. Audiences can pick up on this conflict, which sets up a recursive mindreading game: I know that you know that I’m trying to present myself positively, and so on. Maybe when we become aware of this recursion, we start to realize that “reasons are just impulses woven into narrative,” as you so poetically described it.

Her Here also highlights a tension that has perplexed me for some time, concerning the relationship between narrative self-making and mental health. On one hand, it’s clear that most of us need a narrative thread to make sense of ourselves and stay sane in a chaotic world. And yet, contemplative traditions teach us that recognizing the elusive nature of self (e.g., the Buddhist concept of anatta) is essential for letting go of attachments to ego that generate so much suffering. I’m curious how you approach this tension in your work. When does recognizing that we’re “too various to be trusted” generate terror? When does it set us free?

AD: I agree that this tension is inherently a part of contemplative spiritual traditions. While I can’t answer your question definitively, I do think Her Here is interested in the paradoxical work of creating narratives while recognizing that they are constructions. My narrator, Elena, struggles to connect her own experiences in meaningful ways. Telling the story of what happened to Ella, without all the information, shows her that narratives can be provisional; they can be edited and rewritten. Doing that work frees her to come up with some version of her own story. But the Ella of the journals is also, in her way, haunted by the collapse of narrative. For my characters, stories are a comfort and a necessity. I think the problem comes when narratives rigidify, when we lose our awareness of the fact that they can change.

In interviews, Toni Morrison talks about the “master narrative,” an ideological script imposed by people in authority on everyone else. In The Bluest Eye, Morrison’s character—a young, working-class woman of color—succumbs to a “master narrative” that doesn’t value her. There’s a danger to mental health when you’re made to internalize cultural narratives that diminish you. Being able to remake narratives is vital to restoring and maintaining this health.

There’s also the fact that traditional narrative begins at the end. Because narrative comes after, it can close off other possibilities, potentialities. This can be stifling. Your research on motivated narratives, especially “exculpatory” ones, reminds me of a scene from War and Peace when the Count Rostopchin justifies having unleashed an angry mob on a prisoner, telling himself it was “for the public good.” Feeling the stirrings of conscience, he justifies his murderous act; the crowd needed a victim. After he’s told himself this version of events, a madman with yellow eyes runs across a field, unsettling him. Mental illness is often associated with a breakdown of civilizing narratives, but the breakdown of narratives is so often necessary. Narrative is kind of the ultimate pharmakon. The Greeks understood that pharmakon could be either health-restoring or poison and that situational balance is key.

MC: That’s a brilliant analogy. It suggests that in order to harness the power of narratives we need to remain aware that they are limited and particular representations, little snapshots of corners of our experiences, rather than comprehensive, exclusive representations of “truth.” This can be hard to remember given the way our culture teaches us to think about narratives. For example, consider that before people testify under oath, they’re asked to swear to tell “the whole truth,” as if testimony is capable of doing that.

Nevertheless, our research on narratives and testimony suggests that many people do recognize that there can be multiple versions of the truth, and that people can be generous in trusting those varied representations. We understand that everyone brings their own subjective lens to storying their experiences, and that there can be many different stories about the same set of events, with minimally or even non-overlapping content, and they are all allowed to be “true.” Our research participants seem to understand that, as Donna Haraway would put it, knowledges are situated. They not only recognize that narratives are subjective, they also seem to value that subjectivity, and apply different standards of truth for personal accounts of lived experiences than one might apply to other kinds of communication.

These findings have made me reflect more broadly about the standards of truth we apply to scientific evidence, particularly in cognitive science. We who study human beings using the scientific method sit right at the border of opposing epistemic commitments among scholars. On one side, “hard” scientists typically believe there is a single, “objective” truth and that the scientific method helps us understand that truth. This seems more straightforward to achieve when studying photons or viruses; humans are much messier. Humanities scholars and artists lean into the mess and take subjectivity very seriously. I worry that cognitive scientists try to sweep subjectivity under the rug in service of identifying universal principles of human cognition, and I wonder what is lost in pursuing that goal. Narrative seems to be a site of scholarship that exposes the complex associations between subjectivity, objectivity, knowledge, and truth. When we apply “objective” tools of cognitive science toward studying narratives, our findings lead us back to subjectivity.

How do the characters in Her Here think about the relationship between narrative and truth? Do narratives reveal the self, create the self, or something in between? And what can this tell us about how to find a balance between the remedial and toxic elements of narratives?

AD: The idea that certain knowledges are situated feels so important. One of my obsessions when I was beginning my dissertation was a debate between Bergson and Einstein that touches on some of the dilemmas you describe. In 1922, Einstein was laying out his general theory of relativity and Bergson, a very well-regarded philosopher at the time, found no fault with Einstein’s theory or his data but accused him of dealing exclusively with “clock-time,” with universals. Einstein was using science, physics, where Bergson’s philosophy sought to tease out a human experience of time that is wholly particular, about which it is difficult to generalize. Bergson thought Einstein was missing part of the story.

To your question, the narratives created in Her Here are often, at least initially, intimate. It’s true that Elena’s story about Ella is intended to be read—and Elena may be torn, at times, between wanting to present Ella in a positive light and being honest about what happened—but the narratives each character creates about herself are exploratory rather than explanatory. The privacy of the journal form gives Ella room to experiment, and she’s trying to understand what remains consistent across the sensations and years that make up a life. Elena, as she writes, discovers narrative’s power to bring things into being, to reify. She sees that the selves both women set out to discover by writing are being made, created, and solidified by that very act. There’s so much agency bound up in creating and recreating narratives, in modifying the stories we inherit, in inventing a form for what is formless.

Born in Philadelphia, Amanda Dennis studied modern languages at Princeton and Cambridge Universities before earning her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley and her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was awarded a Whited Fellowship in creative writing. An avid traveler, she has lived in six countries, including Thailand, where she spent a year as a Princeton in Asia fellow. She is assistant professor of comparative literature and creative writing at the American University of Paris and is the author of Beckett and Embodiment: Body, Space, Agency. Her Here is her first novel.

Dr. Molly J. Crockett is an associate professor of psychology at Princeton University. Crockett’s lab investigates moral cognition: how people decide whether to help or harm, punish or forgive, trust or condemn. Their research integrates theory and methods from psychology, neuroscience, economics, philosophy, and data science. Crockett’s recent work has explored the role of narratives in moral identity, moral outrage in the digital age and trust in leaders during a pandemic. Outside the lab, Crockett is a practitioner and teacher of Samatha meditation.