17 votes

Explanatory narratives - tell your stories!

I've commented on explanatory frameworks before. These are the unifying narratives that we use to make sense of ourselves, political concerns, economics, and even science and mathematics. Narratives are accounts of connected events or phenomena that attempt to express the connections in an explanatory story.

We're often afflicted with "just-so" narratives that attempt to reconcile or explain the way the world works with little or no evidence, like claiming inequality of inborn capacities, innate racial differences, or the intervention of supernatural entities and forces.

So this is everyone's chance to tell a story, at whatever length they find convenient, which explains something that concerns them. Possible examples of story topics:

"Why finding work is a struggle for me"
"Bayes' Theorem accounts for everything"
"Political parties can't handle reality"

These examples aren't about me or my beliefs - I'm just flinging things out there. This also isn't a college narrative essay exercise. So just tell a good story about something you care about, that's likely to engage others' interests and concerns.

Conspiracy theories are probably not a good idea here; the tendency towards them is a dysfunction of humans' ability to create, and desire for, narratives.

I ask that participants in the thread refrain from attempting to argue with or disprove others' stories here, but they can become jumping-off points for new Tildes topics.

If this exercise is well-received, it could become a monthly recurring thread. Feel free to advise on better structure.

15 comments

  1. [2]
    zara
    (edited )
    Link
    I always think I have enough time, right up until I don't. I allowed myself to become idle for a very long time, which in turn made me still and the stillness sedated me. But recently I went...

    I always think I have enough time, right up until I don't.

    I allowed myself to become idle for a very long time, which in turn made me still and the stillness sedated me. But recently I went through a dead reckoning. And it has been terrifying.

    My mother died from cancer last month at the age of 56 and I believe her own mother died from breast cancer when she was in her late 50s. As their daughter and granddaughter, I know that there's a decent chance I might be diagnosed accordingly when I enter my fifties, so I only have 27 years left to enjoy if something catastrophic happens.

    But if this is how my story will end, then I'll make damn sure I had some good chapters; I'll make the next 27 years count for something, because I WANT them to count for something. I want to draw again and become an illustrator. I want to visit as many national parks as I can. I want to find my people and maybe even build a family and home for myself. But I can't do any of that if I don't fucking move.

    So here's to 2020, and all the other years ahead of me, each of them unknowable and uncertain, but also each one giving me a chance to do something.

    10 votes
  2. [5]
    patience_limited
    Link
    My apologies to all for abandoning the thread I created! It's been a few days of undesired AFK for a bad arthritis flare-up. It could be the seed for my own narrative of disability, fear, and...

    My apologies to all for abandoning the thread I created! It's been a few days of undesired AFK for a bad arthritis flare-up. It could be the seed for my own narrative of disability, fear, and frustration, but that's not the story I'm interested in telling.

    As @mrbig commented, I've asked for a difficult undertaking - sharing your own explanatory models and narratives requires effort to express the "meta" of your thinking. So, I'll provide a narrative that hopefully explains my explanatory framework for explanatory frameworks and narratives.

    I started considering explanatory frameworks when looking at various psychiatric models for depression, and ran across the work of Arthur Kleinman, the medical anthropologist and psychiatrist who originated the use of explanatory models in cross-cultural psychiatry.

    He basically differentiated diagnosis, the effort in Western medicine to taxonomize clusters of disease symptoms and develop physiological explanations for mental disorders; versus illness, the patient's individual experience of symptoms in the context of their values, family, culture, and society.

    Diagnosis offers explanatory models for the phenomena of patient symptoms. Psychiatric narrative contains both the stories the doctor tells about what is wrong with the patient and how to repair the disease, and the patient's story about the distresses their symptoms cause and whether the cure is working.

    In the introduction to Rethinking Psychiatry (2008), Kleinman advises as follows:

    Although diagnosis is said to be based on a “hypotheticodeductive” method, in which practitioners test possible diagnostic categories against the patient’s symptom story to determine which diagnosis best explains the account and which can be rejected, McCormick (1986) shows that formal hypothesis testing among competing diagnoses is a great rarity in medical practice. Demystifying diagnosis, this physician reasons that simple recognition—based on knowledge, the conceptual system we have learned to use to order the world, and on practical experience, what we have actually been trained to see and do—is the essence of diagnosis in all branches of medicine. The diagnostic interpretation is a culturally constrained activity (though it is also constrained by brute materiality in experience) in which the practitioner’s professional training in a particular taxonomic system for ordering experience renders that experience and its interpretation—natural.” “What are we missing,” asks the naturalist Stephen Jay Gould (1987, p. 24), “because we must place all we see into slots of our usual taxonomy?” The neophyte clinician frequently demands ever more explicit rules to reliably fit sight into slot; the seasoned practitioner often intuitively knows that the fit is good only insofar as it is therapeutically useful and that what is left out of the slotting of experience may be more useful (and valid) than what is hammered in.

    @vivaria and @zara already provided good examples of narratives here, for which I'm grateful. @zara places their experience inside an explanatory model - when confronted with the prospect of a short life, it's necessary to pursue meaning. @vivaria rejects the explanatory models (diagnoses) that have been offered, and is still searching for an explanation that doesn't distort their experiences and supports making rational choices.

    I'm still working my way through Kleinman's What Really Matters: Living a Moral Life Amidst Uncertainty and Danger. The book relates the stories of people with diagnosed psychiatric disorders in the face of truly horrific experience (refugees, veterans, survivors, etc.), and their coming to terms with the choices they made or can make. Kleinman offers the explanatory model that much of the distress we experience arises from the fact that life actually is difficult and threatening, most of the time. Our internal distress at recognition of this reality offers the opportunity to make meaning through ethical choices, particularly when our distress comes from the conflict between our personal values and the morality of our culture and society. The patients experienced relief when they were able to explain their stories in new terms that enabled them to perceive the power of their past and future choices. Kleinman recognized that people may punish themselves for not having realistic scope to make their life narratives "heroic" in terms of their cultural values, but they can be brought to see or make their stories "good" in ethical terms.

    @mrbig complained that explanatory frameworks suggest a relativistic relation with truth. As illustrated above, there is relativism in how we taxonomize truth - which facts are grouped together to formulate explanations for what has been observed. Present-day Western psychiatric diagnosis tends to group observations in terms of disordered physiological processes that can be treated with drugs. Isaac Newton observed one set of facts about gravitation and offered a mathematical framework that explained them, while Albert Einstein grouped in additional facts and generated a new explanatory framework. Neither was wrong, but Einstein offered a more generalizable explanation. "Scientific" racists claim heritability of IQ as an explanatory framework for difference between races, but this depends on whole branches of fact exclusion (and frank inaccuracy).

    As usual, I've gone on too long and not always clearly, but I hope this sheds some light on the why and how of the thread.

    7 votes
    1. [3]
      mrbig
      (edited )
      Link Parent
      As much as I better understand the goals of the thread now, I respectfully decline from partaking on it. There's a reason for psychiatric methods to be as they are, and Newton's and Einstein's...

      As much as I better understand the goals of the thread now, I respectfully decline from partaking on it. There's a reason for psychiatric methods to be as they are, and Newton's and Einstein's findings are both examples of sound rational pursuits of the truth. Lumping them together with pseudoscience and anecdotical personal narratives is dangerous and unsound. There is such a thing as soundness beyond history. This is even more true for much of the exact sciences. Science can and should be continuously proven wrong, but only in the face of (at least) equally strong proof, not by merely being re-framed on a subjective paradigm.

      And since I tend to look for science and logic as means to substantiate my world views, this kind of meta-thinking would be useless for me.

      Besides, meta-theories such as these are self-invalidating. I can very well frame the theory itself in another framework that makes it invalid.

      1 vote
      1. [2]
        vivaria
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        Link Parent
        I would um... caution against lumping these two examples together. Developing a model of the laws of the universe is different than modelling the inner-workings of the brain. One's a lot easier to...

        There's a reason for psychiatric methods to be as they are, and Newton's and Einstein's findings are both examples of sound rational pursuits of the truth.

        I would um... caution against lumping these two examples together. Developing a model of the laws of the universe is different than modelling the inner-workings of the brain. One's a lot easier to experimentally validate than the other, I think.

        This wording also suggests that there's a strong consensus to psychiatric methods, which I'm not sure there is? Relative to physics models, anyway.

        Lumping them together with pseudoscience and anecdotical personal narratives is dangerous and unsound.

        I feel like this overstates the danger of pursuing alternative forms of treatment. There's a range of options, and not all of them are as demonstrably bunk as, say, essential oils to cure cancer. There's a grey area there where a certain treatment might not be guaranteed to cure mental illness, but probably won't actively do harm either.

        Science can and should be continuously proven wrong, but only in the face of (at least) equally strong proof, not by merely being re-framed on a subjective paradigm.

        This would be nice in theory, but... in the case of psychiatric care, idealised thinking like this is kind of... inadequate? Change is a slow, lumbering process and people are in need now. This asks people to wait years, decades, a lifetime (if they're lucky) for the sciences to catch up to what they experience day to day. A lot of people just don't have the privilege of enduring that. When a vulnerable person is consistently failed by the systems they're encouraged to turn to, sometimes they need to take matters into their own hands. Sometimes the risk of doing nothing is a lot higher than the risk of trying something unverified or experimental.

        I look forward to a day 1000 years in the future where everything we're discussing could be objectively dismissed as pseudoscience. But, we live right now, and we have to do what we can with what we're given.


        (Aside: In general, too, the idea of "objective truth" isn't as ironclad as you might think, especially when it comes to more human-centric matters. What gets to be considered truth could be argued to be dependent on the views of the people in power at whatever point in time and place you're considering, for example. I'm very, very far from being anywhere close to an expert on epistemology, but that's at least what I've gotten from a tiny bit of learning.)

        2 votes
        1. mrbig
          (edited )
          Link Parent
          I was not referring to alternative treatments per se (they're mostly harmless as long as they remain a mere alternative), but rather irrationalisms such as flat-earthers and the anti-vax movement....

          I feel like this overstates the danger of pursuing alternative forms of treatment.

          I was not referring to alternative treatments per se (they're mostly harmless as long as they remain a mere alternative), but rather irrationalisms such as flat-earthers and the anti-vax movement.

          Besides:

          • science must not be perfect to be a valid epistemological framework. It only needs to be better than the alternatives.
          • the fact that reasoning may lead to falsehoods does not imply we should devalue rigorous rational pursuit.

          To quote myself:

          Rigorous reasoning doesn't mean being 100% sure of everything 100% of the time, nor does science or philosophy requires every single concept to be as precise as an Euclidean proof. If there were no uncertainty in exact sciences mathematicians would never disagree — and you better believe they do!

          In other words, reality is extremely complex and the fact that we cannot get it right on the first try is not an excuse to completely devalue rational thought as a means to ascertain the truth of our statements according to actual states of things.

          2 votes
    2. Algernon_Asimov
      Link Parent
      Well, that makes things less clear to me! I thought they were off-target. Like I said before, I've been waiting for examples of an "explanatory framework" to turn up here, which seems to be a...

      vivaria and zara already provided good examples of narratives here

      Well, that makes things less clear to me! I thought they were off-target. Like I said before, I've been waiting for examples of an "explanatory framework" to turn up here, which seems to be a personal framework that explains how/why things happen. To my eye, one of these "good examples" is just a personal resolution to not waste precious time, while the other "good example" is a series of questions and musings. Neither of them seemed, to me, to meet the criterion of being a framework that explains things. So you saying they're good examples confuses me even more. :(

      Maybe my explanatory framework is that there is no explanatory framework. Life is random, and we deal with it as best as we can. Nothing more than that.

  3. [4]
    vivaria
    Link
    I grapple a lot with disability narratives. I struggle with a certain task, I acknowledge that it may be due at least in part to mental illness, then try to figure out what do to with that...

    I grapple a lot with disability narratives. I struggle with a certain task, I acknowledge that it may be due at least in part to mental illness, then try to figure out what do to with that conclusion. How do I move forward with that? Is the disability lens the best way to make sense of what I experience?

    • Are there truly limitations in my abilities? Are there certain things that just aren't reasonable for me to try to do? Or, is my own self-perception of disability part of what's giving me difficulty? Is that view causing me to give up early on something I might be capable of, if only I figured out the trick? By saying "I am a disabled person," am I successfully self-advocating? Or am I writing a self-fulling prophecy, ascribing qualities to myself that aren't necessarily set in stone?
    • Should I try to "overcome" my disability by practising skills that don't come easily to me? Or, is the act of practising akin to a wheelchair-bound person "practising" for a marathon by pushing themselves out of their chair only to repeatedly collapse to the ground? Should I instead focus on self-acceptance and understanding? Or, is that self-acceptance and understanding causing me to fall behind with regards to abilities deemed vital and necessary by society?
    • How do I reconcile moments of "high-functioning" with moments of "low-functioning"? There are times when I do something Really Well, miraculously well, to the point where it seems representative of "progress" in managing my mental health. And other times, I am so hopelessly nonfunctional that it feels like I should be in a mental ward because of how unable I am to take care of myself. It's hard to be both of those things at once in systems that encourage you to be one or the other. I recently had to write a justification for why my degree should be extended, and it required me to construct a narrative about how "I had some hard times but now I am better! Just look at my grades and accomplishments!" My mom, my friends, the uni career advisor, they all congratulate me on how far I've come and how much I have improved. Mental health supports, too, are so temporary and focused on recovery narratives. It feels like none of this leaves room for the case where I didn't "get better" and instead continue to actively struggle.
    • How do I cope with recovery narratives that place the responsibility on the individual for building skills to manage their own mental health? If I'm unable to employ those skills and relapse, is that my fault? Should I feel guilty for struggling, as though I haven't tried hard enough to practice the therapeutic strategies and the mindfulness and the challenging of "cognitive distortions"?
    • How do I cope with the low sense of self-worth that comes with anxiety and depression? Messaging around me pushes me to speak of myself highly, to talk about my strengths and accomplishments. I have to "display leadership qualities" and talk about my virtues. But what if the act of doing so causes me pain? What if trying to mine for these virtues leaves me feeling desperate and hopeless? Should I still try and buy into the narratives necessary for selling myself as economically valuable?

    Still feeling like I want to kill myself when I prepare for interviews, so that's fun.

    6 votes
    1. [2]
      vivaria
      (edited )
      Link Parent
      I think I have an aversion to narratives. I'm scared of buying into the wrong ones and limiting myself, so I obsessively question everything. I poke and prod and deconstruct all of the...

      I think I have an aversion to narratives. I'm scared of buying into the wrong ones and limiting myself, so I obsessively question everything. I poke and prod and deconstruct all of the foundational understanding behind what I believe. It's not enough for me to receive a diagnosis and be happy with that. I just have to wander through uni libraries trying to find different perspectives on functioning. I take out a book on shyness from a sociological perspective, which questions the psychiatric perspective I had gotten used to. I interrogate the ADHD alien comics my friend reblogs on her tumblr, trying to figure out whether that really is a valid narrative or if there's another explanation for why that person is acting the way they're acting. I had an ADHD diagnosis once -- where does that put my feelings? Diagnoses are so fragile and fickle... after what I've been through it's hard for me to feel confident enough to just stick with one and wear that badge. But it seems necessary to buy into the diagnosis pride to receive validation and accommodation and support. So, should I try to cling to that anyway?

      I wish I had a narrative I clung to. I wish I believed in something so strongly that I could just adhere to it without the self-doubt and self-interrogation. I think my life might be so much more peaceful if I wasn't so uncertain all of the time. I could just act one way and give others the impression that that way is My Thing. When I had a BPD diagnosis, "unstable sense of self" came up a lot. I don't know if I still count as "having BPD" but that one label feels kind of relatable. But then, what is a sense of self, you know? From which perspective are you defining a sense of self?

      If you, @patience_limited, believe that "Power goes to the best and loudest storyteller." then I am a timid and finicky storyteller who can't get a dang story straight. Or is all of this in itself its own story?

      5 votes
      1. Kuromantis
        Link Parent
        I'm going to have to agree here that I can't really believe in a narrative or diagnosis. I was diagnosed with autism at somewhere around 2-3 because my case was particularly apparent (I was...

        I'm going to have to agree here that I can't really believe in a narrative or diagnosis. I was diagnosed with autism at somewhere around 2-3 because my case was particularly apparent (I was actually the kind of autistic baby who bashed my head into the wall). But how did I change into who I am today? Is my autism 'fixed' or 'getting better'? According to most sources yes and that happens, but how, and when? And then you get into what separates 'high functioning' autism from asperger syndrome or how many of these mental disorders oftem share symptoms with each other (like ADHD, aspergers, OCD) and things that occur independent of these disorders, which makes it that much harder to seriously fix it (or anything really) into my 'identity' and take it as a part of me.

        3 votes
    2. skybrian
      Link Parent
      I don't know but I can talk about other stuff this reminds me of, and maybe some of it will be useful? I think many skills come from deliberate practice in the right environment, until you can do...

      I don't know but I can talk about other stuff this reminds me of, and maybe some of it will be useful?

      I think many skills come from deliberate practice in the right environment, until you can do it consistently. Throwing yourself into something that's too hard for you may be practice in muddling through or in surviving bad situations but it's often not the sort of practice that builds confidence in core abilities.

      Sometimes to learn how to move faster you need to slow way down and work on fundamentals. Consistency comes from doing the same things many times until it becomes a habit. The first time you succeed at something difficult is a milestone (because you've shown it's possible) but that doesn't mean the skill is solid yet and you should expect you will still see some failures until you practice it more.

      Trying to predict in advance whether you can succeed seems less important than finding the right environment where you can practice it safely?

      Or at least, that's how it works for me when learning a musical instrument. Whether it works for other stuff, I don't know, but maybe it's a useful narrative?

      2 votes
  4. [4]
    Algernon_Asimov
    Link
    I'm not sure I understand the exercise. Do you want me to tell the story of my life? Do you want me to explain how something else works?

    I'm not sure I understand the exercise. Do you want me to tell the story of my life? Do you want me to explain how something else works?

    2 votes
    1. [3]
      patience_limited
      Link Parent
      You don't have to tell the whole story of your life, but if you have a theory about x (your life, politics, your cat, a scientific factoid, etc.) that you want to explain as a story, please proceed..

      You don't have to tell the whole story of your life, but if you have a theory about x (your life, politics, your cat, a scientific factoid, etc.) that you want to explain as a story, please proceed..

      5 votes
      1. mrbig
        (edited )
        Link Parent
        I also have trouble wrapping my head around the concept. If I understand correctly, you're asking for some kind of meta-thinking that can range from extremely hard to impossible. The things I...

        I also have trouble wrapping my head around the concept. If I understand correctly, you're asking for some kind of meta-thinking that can range from extremely hard to impossible. The things I believe in are not "explanatory frameworks", they're conclusions derived from facts. As such, they might be wrong. But calling them "explanatory frameworks" seems to devalue them from the start.

        It also suggests a relativistic relation with truth. Please correct me if I'm wrong.

        6 votes
      2. Algernon_Asimov
        Link Parent
        I still don't get it. It feels like it should be a good idea, but it's beyond me. I'll leave it for more creative people. Maybe if I see some examples, I'll get it. Thanks for trying to explain...

        I still don't get it. It feels like it should be a good idea, but it's beyond me. I'll leave it for more creative people. Maybe if I see some examples, I'll get it.

        Thanks for trying to explain it, though.

        2 votes