People think in stories.
As we interact with our environments and take in information, our thoughts find ways of connecting to one another in order to form our personal internal narratives. Given the state of things at a point A and a different point B, we generally make sense of whatever changes occurred between them by connecting the dots of information we have into a story arc. If we want to change the way people think, then, we must start by changing the stories they tell themselves–for better or worse. The stories we tell ourselves will, of course, have a bearing on our perception of reality in an abstract sense. But how do these narrative convictions affect our lives in concrete ways, at both the collective and individual levels? In what ways are they helping or harming ourselves or others?
At the collective level, last year’s Ebola epidemic is a prime example of how cultural narrative can shape behaviour and concrete outcomes. One of the things that has made the virus particularly difficult to contain is the set of traditional burial rituals across much of West Africa. These rituals involve hand-washing and close handling of the bodies of the deceased by family members–believed to be “a loving way of sending the spirit into the next world,” according to Professor Ian Lipkin. The problem is that this is precisely when an infected body will have the highest (read: most contagious) viral load, which is spread through contact with bodily fluids.
The conflict between the World Health Organisation’s safety guidelines and these traditional burial rituals has led family members to hide affected bodies from officials, perform secret burials, and avoid hospitals altogether–not to mention fostering a growing distrust of Western medical practices and professionals. Research from Doctors Barry and Bonnie Hewlett suggests that “[p]rohibiting families from performing such rites is not only viewed as an affront to the deceased, but as actually putting the family in danger. ‘In the event of an improper burial, the deceased person’s spirit (tibo) will cause harm and illness to the family’.” These cultural convictions must clearly be taken into account as experts work towards solving these problems.
In 2008, Canadian epidemiologist Christopher Charles found a way to use a cultural narrative about a fish to solve the problem of iron deficiency in Cambodia–the Lucky Iron Fish. Iron deficiency anemia is a problem for a huge chunk of the Cambodian population; if left untreated, it can lead to impaired motor and cognitive function, premature birth, infections, inflammation, and extreme fatigue. Iron-rich foods are often too expensive or hard to come by in Cambodia, and even cast iron cookware isn’t common. Initially, Charles had the idea to distribute small chunks of iron to local women to place in their pots while cooking. They didn’t exactly catch on; in fact, “[t]he women promptly put them to use as doorstops.” He later learned about a fish called the try kantrop, “which the locals ate frequently and considered a symbol of good luck.” He decided to try handing out little iron replicas of this good luck charm with the same instructions, and soon enough the local women were happy to cook with them. Users showed a 50% decrease in the incidence iron deficiency anemia after using the fish every day for nine months!
For an example of how the stories we tell ourselves shape our behaviour on an individual level, just look to advertising. Advertisers have been attempting to rewrite our personal narratives since they came into being. They try to convince us to spend money on products A and B because we’re not X or Y enough without them. Take these vintage gems, for instance–you women better watch out for dishpan hands, smelly ‘pits, and red smeary lipstick if you want to keep your man happy and avoid humiliation:
And don’t forget these, from our own enlightened age:
If you’re a real man, you’d better be drinking Carling Black Label and smelling like Old Spice (which does smell really good, admittedly). And if you’re someone’s husband, clearly you’re barely competent enough to bake a potato.
On a more positive note, research in the field of psychoneuroimmunology continues to yield promising results about the relationship between state of mind and immune response in individuals (particularly in the production of the T-cells that fight off infection). There is now understood to be a direct correlation between positive psychological/emotional status and physiological wellbeing. Sometimes, it seems, it really is a case of mind over matter!