How Mental Narratives Are Formed in the Brain

We're all made up of stories. We organize everything that happens to us and give it meaning through our mental narratives. This means that it's not only what happens to us that's important, but how we interpret it.
How Mental Narratives Are Formed in the Brain

Last update: 28 July, 2022

Mental narratives are the stories you tell yourself about what happens to you. In effect, you talk to yourself,  trying to make sense of each experience. This is your mind providing a logical and coherent structure to each event so that every detail has transcendence among your memories.

The psychologist, Jerome Bruner, was the first to speak about the cognitive power of self-narrative. According to him, we give sense, meaning, and direction to each and every event and experience. Therefore, we’re our own writers who build our own stories. Somehow, we order the chaos, the surprising, and even the uncertain. In fact, giving meaning to each experience is a natural need of our brains.

Elaborating on these narratives facilitates your memory. Every scene, sensation, and experience that’s organized in your mind following a connecting thread will end up being part of your autobiographical memory.

Each and every one of us is the result of a story. These stories are, above all, mental, internal, and subjective processes. Let’s take a closer look.

Mind with a man inside
Our mental narratives are like matrices that help us shape everyday experience so that it makes sense to our brains.

Mental narratives, a key element of the brain

Interest in the field of neuroscience concerning mental narratives is extremely recent. Indeed, as this science advanced in the understanding of memory, they wanted to integrate the perspective of how experiences are joined with others in order to interpret them and give them meaning. In effect, to understand how they become settled in the memory.

Brendan Cohn-Sheehy, a researcher at the University of California, and his team recently published a study on this subject. As he explained in a press conference, we need to build coherent narratives to be able to remember the details of each event. Everything that’s not integrated into our mental history is relegated to oblivion.

Jerome Bruner had already indicated this idea in his book, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. His legacy was a revolution in cognitive psychology, because, for the first time, he brought us another facet of the mind. He claimed that our mental universe isn’t just limited to testing hypotheses, analyzing, or contrasting. We’re also narrative builders, trying to make sense of what happens to us.

In our narrative minds, we also include perceptions about what we think others think about us.

The hippocampus: the region that gives coherence to life

If we use the metaphor of the brain being a computer, we could say that the hippocampus is the hard drive. It’s the area in which memories and learning processes are consolidated. It also deals with the regulation of emotional states and is key in spatial memory.

The aforementioned research conducted by Dr. Cohn-Sheehy and his team claimed that the hippocampus is the region that facilitates our mental narratives to be coherent. In other words, it favors and organizes the union of all the pieces of a story. That’s because the more cohesive a narrative is, the better it’ll be integrated into memory.

As a matter of fact, you need to remember your past to organize your present. In other words, in order for you to integrate your life story in a logical and meaningful way, you must also use yesterday so that any narrative is coherent. Coherent with your identity, trajectory, experiences, and personality.

The brain is selective and also deceitful

Jerome Bruner claims that the self is the product of a narrative process in which we combine what happens to us with what we tell ourselves. However, be careful, because you also include what -in your opinion- others think of you. In this regard, you’re obviously not always right.

Dr. John. Drummond (2004) wrote an article entitled Cognitive Impenetrability and the Complex Intentionality of the Emotions. He stated that mental narratives are selections of our existence that we capture, a posterior, to give them meaning. In other words, the story of your life isn’t always a millimetric reflection of what’s happened to you, but of how you’ve interpreted it.

Sometimes, you give a clearly negative meaning to certain facts. Indeed, you only need to be dominated by emotions of negative valence at a certain time to filter and distort reality. In fact, your brain isn’t only selective but sometimes tends to warp what it sees based on your mood and personality type.

Silhouette of a man representing mental narratives
Human beings order reality as a story. However, that story will be more adjusted or artificial depending on our way of being and the emotions that dominate us at that moment.

Mental narratives and internal dialogue

Mental narratives are like the movie you script about everything that happens to you. You’re the actor, the screenwriter, and the director. Nevertheless, this isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Michael White and David Epston, creators of narrative therapy, claim that we’re often limited by a clearly harmful dominant narrative. They state that the origin of this discomfort or unhappiness will almost always be in our family ‘files’. In those early experiences and an environment that encouraged us to create painful stories. Since that time, we’ve been unable to move forward and find ourselves stuck in a never-ending chapter.

In these cases, narrative therapy seeks for us to connect with other experiences that, perhaps, we’d overlooked when we constructed our story. After all, it’s always possible for us to open other doors to create new experiences and give them a more positive and enriching meaning. In this, the voice of the self is key.

Finally, our internal dialogue is the sculptor of our own stories. Therefore, you must try and shape healthier and brighter mental narratives. That’s because, as well as what happens to you, how you interpret it is of paramount importance. Doing so in a resilient and hopeful way will always be beneficial.

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  • Bruner, Jerome (1995). “The Narrative Construction of Reality” (1991). Critical Inquiry, 18:1, 1-21.
  • Burnner, Jerome (2009) Realidad mental y mundos posibles: Los actos de la imaginación que dan sentido a la experiencia. Gedisa.
  • Danto, A. C. (1989): Historia y narración. Ensayos de filosofía analítica de la historia. Barcelona: Paidós.
  • Drummond, J. (2004). Cognitive Impenetrability and the Complex Intentionality of the Emotions, Journal of Conciousness Studies 11, 109-126.
  • Duero, D. G. (2011). Procesos psicológicos y mundos mentales. Córdoba: Editorial Alejandría