The Brain has Two Systems

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At Jargogle, we make a rather bold claim:

Narrative is the natural language of the human mind.

What do we mean by this? In this essay, lets take a look at how two systems of the brain, the Behavioral System and the Reflective System, work together to form the human experience. Then, we’ll discuss how Narrative Design is for the Reflective Brain.

The brain in two parts


Psychologists that discuss different aspects of the human mind have found it useful to differentiate the functions of the brain into two groups: Behavioral Understanding and Reflective Understanding 1.

Behavioral Understanding
The way the brain helps us understand what we’re doing in the now. Behavioral understanding is based mostly on our instincts, habits and experiences we feel in the moment.

Reflective Understanding
The way we understand complex things analytically and apply meaning to what we do. This enables us to understand the relationship between the past, present, and future, as well as other complex tasks like algebra reading the newspaper. The systems that make up our reflective brain help us understand and record meaning 2.

We can think about it in a metaphorical sense: as the behavioral system steers the boat, the reflective system is taking notes about what is going well, what is going poorly, and why. It takes this reflection to set further rules to guide the behavioral system in the future.

Designing for each system


When we communicate with a person’s behavioral system, we try to lay a path for people that aren’t operating consciously. We study people’s habits, discuss their propensity for default options, and track the way their eyes move instinctively.

The reflective system, however, speaks a different language: the language of pattern. It seeks to understand how things fit together, how they are similar and how they are different. It creates for itself a pattern library that can be used to interpret data sets in different ways, and layers these patterns on top of one another to create complex ideas like language, mathematics, morals, and ethics.

Some patterns are instinctual and recognized by all humans 4. Other lenses are borrowed and taught – when we look at something from a “feminist,” “scientific,” or “historical,” we filter our available information to see if it fits archetypal patterns within these areas. Other patterns are unique to the individual – we build them from reflecting on our own personal experiences. All of these patterns work together to constitute our worldview.

The reflective brain seeks closure and completeness – simple ways to understand complex problems articulated as principles and validated through examples of causal correlation. Just as an ergonomically-shaped handle helps the behavioral brain see what a hand can grasp, properly shaped information helps a brain understand what is true.

To speak to the reflective brain, we use narrative.

Reflection and Reality


In a second, (after you read this), close your eyes and try to picture eating dinner last night. How much do you really remember? Do you remember what you ate? What color were the walls? How many tables were in the room? What color were the flowers? What kind of clothes were people wearing? What music was playing? How many minutes did it take?

Our reflective brain can’t simply record all the information around us all the time. Instead, it seeks, organizes, and stores information it feels will be useful in the moment or the future. If you had something particularly delicious, disgusting,or novel to eat, you probably do remember – otherwise, your brain may not have thought it was worth keeping.

In our personal and professional lives, however, we typically want to say things that can be easily understood, easy to remember, and persuasive. How can we craft information in this way?

The Reflective Brain is for Human Problems


The behavioral brain is for animal problems (like breathing or fighting enemies), the reflective brain is for human problems (like understanding morality or ethics).

There are a lot of ways that the medium of a story can appeal to the behavioral brain. For instance, in a movie, loud music or a fast paced fight scene can make our heart race from the increased adrenaline it makes us feel; not to mention the way a sexy actor or actress perks up our attention. In a videogame, our a certain mechanic can test our reflexes, and in a novel like A Clockwork Orange, the exotic and rhythmic writing style can help us get into a groove once we’re used to it.

If we want a story to be persuasive, though, or to challenge our audience in a purposeful way, we need to map these elements to a narrative structure that builds a case for our argument over time. Read on to see Why Narrative Speaks to the Reflective Brain.