Without story, we’re nothing

To better outline and communicate the core findings of my research and identify tangible ideas, I decided to collect all my research into categories and write a structured text (which is what I should have done already). I am aware that my ideas can get a little confusing and chaotic – usually because they are fragmented and rarely very straight forward. This of course will reflect on the structure of my research and the way I communicate it and therefore, if I am not careful, it can make my ideas seem like they are lacking in content.

 

Throughout the process I have been researching empathy, magical thinking, rituals, affective connections, mental health, the art of craft and making, the psychology of dress, and art therapy, among other things. These things may seem like they are very different and scattered all over the place, but this is not the case. All these topics link to each other.

 

Emotional objects

We are surrounded by objects that hold meaning and memories; material things that are affectively connected to our narrative identities. Commodities can become powerful mnemonic devices that evoke feelings and memories of past relationships and thus embody added value for their owners (Moran, O’Brien 2014). We form emotional bonds between objects, people, and moments through association and ‘magical thinking’ that shifts through context, time, and space. In rituals objects and actions have rich layers of symbolic meaning, which is often created through magical associations or emotional attachment.

How then do affective connections, magical thinking, ritual, and mental well-being connect?

 

The stories we tell

Humans are obsessed with stories. As (Gottschall 2012) poetically puts it in his book The Storytelling Animal, ‘We are soaked to the bone in story.’ There are many theories as to why exactly we tell stories but most of them seem to suggest that it is an evolutionary adaptation that helps us experience our lives in a coherent and meaningful way (Gottschall 2012).

Our lives are so influenced by stories and a variety of story-like activities that scientific studies suggest we have about two thousand daydreams per day. That means we spend up to half of our waking life daydreaming – telling ourselves stories! If you start paying attention to your stream of consciousness you may discover that daydreaming is your brain’s default state. (Gottschall 2012)

We are essentially living breathing stories walking around sharing our personal narratives with each other. Your life story is a ‘personal myth’ about who you are, where you came from, and what made you you (Gottschall 2012). Your life story constructs your identity. However, the story that is your life is not fully objective. Life stories are carefully shaped narratives filled with strategic forgetting and skillfully spun meanings (Gottschall 2012).

As an aspect of mind, magic is universal to human beings (Greenwood 2012) and has a close relationship to storytelling. Magical thinking is essentially a way to construct meaning and connect with the present moment through a heightened state of affective being. Magical analogy connects with an alternative mode of reality that is more than just the visible and tangible world and involves an evocative transference of meaning from one connection to another connection (Greenwood 2012). The magical thought is chiefly emotional because it is constructed from affective connections that develop over time (Greenwood 2012). Have you ever struggled to discard an item because it was linked to evocative memories or an important person in your life? Not wanting to part with an object because of your emotional connection with it is a type of magical thinking. You may feel that by losing your physical connection to the object you are also losing the emotional connection to the person or memory – by severing the physical connection you also let go of the emotional connection. This type of magical thinking also happens in reverse, where negative memories or feelings are let go of through physical transformation of symbolic objects representing the relationship, such as in grief rituals.

Rituals are also ubiquitous to human culture – we all have our daily rituals and all spiritual belief systems are built on ritual. Ritual emphasises human creativity and physicality; it is not ritual that molds people, rather it is people who fashion rituals that mold their world (Bell 1997). Creating and performing rituals is a form of active and physical storytelling that gives our life purpose and meaning through magical and affective connections.

According to a model by Romanoff (1998) successful grief rituals should support three complementary functions: continuation of the connection with the lost loved one, transition to a new social role, and transformation of sense of self to accommodate the new relationship with the lost loved one (Sas and Coman 2016). The grief ritual is created to help people adapt to a new story. It is a focused and time limited activity with a structure enables participants to exercise and experience control over the chaos associated with the process of loss and grief (Sas and Coman 2016).

 

A healthy story 

So how does story and magic link to emotional well-being and mental health?

First of all, it is important define the concepts and draw a distinction between emotional, or mental, well-being and mental health. Mental well-being refers to positive states of being, thinking, feeling, and behaving, whereas mental health includes negative and positive states ranging from severe mental illness to excellent mental health (Tennant et al. 2007, Bakolis et al. 2018). Mental well-being is considered to be a good indicator of how individuals are able to function and thrive in everyday life and is predictive of future risk of mental health issues (Keyes 2007, Bakolis et al. 2018).

If we tell ourselves stories to make our lives coherent and meaningful then could personal storytelling perhaps be considered a form of individual, everyday therapy? Without it our inner worlds would crumble completely. Our story is after all what shapes our lives and the reason we exist. If we fail to give our story meaning and embed it with a healthy amount of ignorance how will it affect our emotional well-being? A depressed mind is dealing with a broken story, as becomes apparent when Gottschall (2012) references psychologist Michele Crossley, who says that depression frequently stems from an ‘incoherent’ story, an ‘inadequate’ narrative, or a ‘life story gone awry’. If the mind doesn’t tell itself flattering lies, it is not healthy (Taylor, Gottschall 2012).

Although the latter statement seems a little problematic – what is a ‘healthy mind’, what is a ‘healthy lie’ and where do you draw the line between harmless lies and dangerous lies – there is perhaps something to it. Studies have suggested that depression is often linked to a highly realistic view of the world. In other words, a worldview lacking in flattering lies and optimism? This would indicate that storytelling with a healthy dose of ignorance is, at least to some extent, good for our emotional well-being.

 

The magical storytelling ritual

So how could affective connections and storytelling be used for a creative and self-reflective ritual to support mental well-being?

Could elements from grief rituals be applied to a personal storytelling ritual to connect with and externalise complex emotions? What would the structure and process look like when the connection is chiefly with yourself, as opposed to a lost loved one?

In grief rituals the process of holding on and letting go is done with objects which can be physical, manipulated, newly crafted, or even imaginary. What would this process look like if it was done mainly with clothing and by adding performative elements, such as self-portraits?

How would the process of transformation be documented? How does one not forget the value and the outcome of the transformation? Ritual mementos are physical objects used during the ritual and selected as future cues for recalling the ritual experience (Sas and Coman 2016). A memento creates a tangible link to the performed ritual and transformation. Could a self-portrait or series of self-portraits be the memento that represents the affective connection to the process?

How do the things we wear shape our personal narratives and what are the affective, mnemonic, and therapeutic properties and possibilities of dress?

 

Bakolis, I. et al. (2018) 'Urban Mind: Using Smartphone Technologies to Investigate the Impact of Nature on Mental Well-Being in Real Time', BioScience, 68(2), pp. 134–145, doi: 10.1093/biosci/bix149 

Bell, C. (1997) Ritual: perspectives and dimensions. New York: Oxford University Press 

Gottschall, J. (2012) The storytelling animal: how stories make us human. Boston: Mariner Books 

Greenwood, S. (2009) The anthropology of magic. Oxford: Berg 

Moran, A. and O'Brien, S., (ed.) (2014) Love objects: emotion, design and material culture. London: Bloomsbury Academic 

Sas, C. and Coman, A. (2016) Designing personal grief rituals: ‘An analysis of symbolic objects and actions’, Death Studies 40(9), pp. 558-569. doi: 10.1080/07481187.2016.1188868

Sometimes things seem more confusing than they are

This week I had a casual meeting with Chris Meade, a creative writer who is exploring the future of the book through people’s ‘nearly’ stories; all those things that nearly happen to us. Although his PhD doesn’t directly link to my own research, his work does touch on the subject of personal narratives and is partly informed by affective stories people share with him, which is why I thought it could be useful to hear more about his process. He is using storytelling to convey a set of abstract ideas through different interventions, and what he is doing fits perfectly into the Applied Imagination philosophy and methods. He found my thoughts on how objects are linked to our narrative identities and emotions interesting and thought my ideas on exploring individual storytelling through dress has PhD potential. 

I also had a Skype call with my tutor and she thought I am still using too broad terms to describe my project. I believe there are a few different reasons for this, the main reason being that I am not communicating my ideas confidently enough. Part of the reason for this is that I have not assembled my literary research notes and thoughts in a cohesive and organised way. My research is fragmented, drawing on ideas from very different – perhaps a little unexpected – subject areas, which means that I have struggled to summarise them at this stage. There have been moments when my ideas do not even make sense to me. It should be noted though that this is not because of random assumptions, loose ideas, or a lack of rigorous research. However, it does mean that pulling these fragments together (in a short amount of time) is challenging and does require intense processing. In addition to this, I also need to assemble all the concrete ideas that have surfaced from my research in one document.

Another issue I am currently dealing with is not having done enough work on collecting information through an intervention. (And to whomever is thinking ‘well, just go out there and do it’, I am going to say: Perhaps, but it really is easier said than done, and I have decided not to do interventions just for the sake of doing interventions.) I have consciously been focusing more on refining my core idea than developing the intervention because I noticed that I was only going around in circles when I tried to focus on the intervention. I am now, however, working on turning my ‘intervention scores’ into an event where people are invited to share their emotional connections to items of clothing or accessories. Chris Meade thought this was a good idea, especially when I mentioned including the opportunity to have your photograph taken during the event. I have been in correspondence with The Poetry Café about using their space as a venue, but it has been slow and I am still waiting to schedule a meeting with them. It is possible that the time of the year and the heatwave has something to do with the absence of prompt responses.

Since a lot of my research relates to the way we experience and relate to our own existence and emotions, it is crucial I talk to people with expertise in how our minds work. I have been in correspondence with the psychologist I met at Bethlem last month and will be meeting her on the 15th to discuss my ideas. She was intrigued by my series of ‘intervention scores’ and the concept of self-reflective storytelling. My tutor also said she would introduce me to someone who works in mental health. Receiving feedback from people with experience in psychology should help me refine my ideas and identify potential target groups and collaborators.