Narrative identity and neuroscience

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the “interactive” part of narratives of desistance – the negotiation of narratives with others, positive feedback and “identity verification” , and the role of the story audience in determining which narratives are credible and authentic and which are not. I think that this is a point of connection between narrative identity theories of desistance and other, more traditional criminology concepts like informal social control, social bonds, social capital, and many life-course developmental theories of desistance.

At a lunch meeting this week a guest speaker mentioned some of the new brain science on emotions, especially guilt and shame (which reminded me of Pogrebin et al, 2015) and somehow in the course of conversation it came up that MRI technology has shown that narratives “light up” certain sections of the brain. I started thinking about this first in regard to narrative identity and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) – I have often wondered about the relationship between cognitive impairment and one’s ability to do the narrative restructuring necessary to “make good” of a life story. I wondered if the ACEs associated with growing up in high crime/violence and economically disadvantaged areas could inhibit the development of these skills and then play out as adult difficulty with re-narrating one’s life to highlight evidence of the good and account for the not-so-good – the ability to process and recall autobiographical memories, create meaning from them, and link them to current events.

I decided to read up on the neuropsychology literature to learn more about this, and as I was pulling and saving articles tonight, I found one about how reading stories can help to increase empathy. Importantly, empathy has both affective and cognitive components:

“The components of empathy include, affective empathy, meaning feeling concern or compassion for another, emotional contagion, or experiencing identical emotions as another, and perspective-taking, or a basic understanding of another’s thoughts and emotions.” – Johnson, 2012: 150

I knew this already, because I’m an avid reader and well aware of the benefits of reading fiction! For some reason, I just never connected that idea to my research interests. But how perfect — perhaps it isn’t just the story we tell to ourselves that helps with desistance, but the empathy that the story evokes from others. Those empathetic others might, say, take a more favorable view of the desisting person, be more understanding and flexible, help to remove some of those barriers to “going straight” — agree to lease an apartment, offer a job, watch the kids, give rides, and all the other incredibly important help that we can offer each other. They may also provide the sought-after identity verification (placing the individual in the identity they are claiming for themselves, as one who is reformed/redeemed) which could give a boost to positive emotions, increased self-esteem and self-efficacy, and a greater “buffer” against setbacks in reentry (e.g. Stone et al, 2016).

But if someone can’t put together an empathy-evoking narrative — not because they don’t have the right material, but because of cognitive impairment that interferes with retrieval of autobiographical memory and narrative processing (e.g. after traumatic brain injury, Marini et al. 2011)– then they won’t benefit from this kind of help except from those already inclined to support them. They may also struggle to achieve identity verification and instead find themselves constantly questioned — interrogated — about why their story doesn’t make sense. It may seem easier, in these cases, to slip back into the story that others are telling about you, stigmatizing as it may be, instead of trying to forge a counternarrative.

Just thinking aloud! I don’t yet have data to explore this in-depth – I have a lot of narratives, but I have never looked at the relationship to any sort of cognitive ability, nor have I specifically explored my participants’ experiences of sharing narratives with others. I’m not sure how to best go about such a project, but I think there is a lot to explore there. I am glad that the narrative criminology work that I find so inspiring and engaging has so many supportive and affirming connections with other disciplines.

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