How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories, by Alex Rosenberg

Do we learn incorrect and harmful lessons from our hard-wired love of narrative? asks Gail Marshall

October 25, 2018
Source: Getty
Turning history upside down: Alex Rosenberg aims to show that an addiction to explanations based on history is dangerous

The cover of How History Gets Things Wrong shows Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps turned upside down. Inside, Alex Rosenberg attempts a similarly disorienting exercise. Using examples from recent Western history, and employing the tools of “cognitive science, evolutionary anthropology, and, most of all, neuroscience”, he aims to show how an addiction to explanations based on history is not only misguided but dangerous.

In an ironic nod to Jane Austen and the power of narrative generally, the book begins: “It’s almost universally accepted that learning the history of something – the true story of how it came about – is one way to understand it.” The problem, according to Rosenberg, is that the “explanations of narrative history get almost everything wrong, and the consequences are more often than not harmful”.

Citing the ways in which local and global histories may unhelpfully perpetuate deep-rooted hostilities such as those in the Middle East, he claims that we have to forgo the familiarity of narrative histories to avoid perpetuating centuries-old mistakes. The difficulty is that these histories are associated with great pleasure – after hearing a story, we get a rush of hormones including oxytocin, “which is also released during orgasm” – and the instinct to believe in the cause-and-effect implications of historical narratives is either innate or acquired so early in childhood that it might as well be innate.

Rosenberg draws on neuroscience to argue that our “fixation on stories – narrative” is illogical, and that our historical “consciousness” has little to do with the way in which “our brains acquire, store, and use information”. In essence, he argues, our taste for narrative predetermines us to ignore the fact that our neurological functions have no inherent link to historical determination. His patient frustration at humanity’s persistent wrong-headedness nicely seasons well-judged chapters that carefully guide the non-scientist through a history – there is no other word for it – of 20th-​century neurological discoveries that prove his point.

Drawing on his own research in cognitive science, he also argues for the need to give up on history in order to move forward and make better decisions, but eventually he concedes the near impossibility of this happening, because we cannot “profoundly change our attitudes towards narrative”. But is Rosenberg creating a problem where none actually exists or, at least, not to the extent that he suggests? It’s likely that we are more sophisticated readers of history than Rosenberg allows: many of us are fascinated rather than appalled or stymied by the multiple, often conflicting, narratives of great lives and well-known events. We are also well aware that histories “don’t tell us what actually happened in the past, [but] only what people think happened in the past”. What else can they do?

Rosenberg concludes by suggesting that we would benefit from recognising narrative history simply as a source of “entertainment, escape, [and] abiding pleasure”, but this concedes too much, and negates, as is perhaps his intention, any serious claim that history and narrative might make on us. Michael Ondaatje’s recently published Warlight gives more legitimacy to historical narratives’ tangibly persistent attraction while recognising that they are not a key to all understanding: “We order our lives with barely held stories.”

Gail Marshall is professor of Victorian literature, and head of the School of Literature and Languages, at the University of Reading.

How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of Our Addiction to Stories
By Alex Rosenberg
MIT Press, 304pp, £22.00
ISBN 9780262038577
Published 9 October 2018


Print headline: The past is a tale not to be trusted

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Reader's comments (1)

The book is entitled: "How History Gets Things Wrong: The Neuroscience of our Addiction to Stories," and the reviewer writes "Drawing on his own research in cognitive science ..." All this gives the suggestion that Alex Rosenberg is a scientist. But he is not a scientist. He is not a cognitive scientist nor is he a neuroscientist. Why would the Times Higher Education have an expert on Victorian Literature review this work if it was based on science? Alex Rosenberg is a philosopher a profession commonly occupied with speculation and pontification. The review suggests to me that there is no substantive science to be found in this work and that the author is employing a limited understanding of science with some notion of ending hostility in the world by advancing the idea that the very notion of history and narrative is wrong. Which implies cause and effect is wrong. As the reviewer points out the ludicrousness of this notion is the fact that this book necessarily employs narrative.