Your Brain on Myth
Unveiling the Inner Workings of Our Mind
Have you ever wondered why myths have been an integral part of human cultures throughout history? It turns out that our brains are wired to create myths, using them as powerful tools to understand and navigate the world around us. Regardless of cultural backgrounds or belief systems, myths share similar components and content, suggesting that the myth-making process is deeply ingrained in the human brain.
The Meaning and Purpose of Myths
Myths have always played a significant role in human societies, becoming intertwined with burial rituals, temples, and entire civilizations. Contrary to popular belief, the term "myth" does not imply falsehood but stems from the Greek word mythos, meaning a "word" spoken with unquestioned authority (as opposed to knowledge that was derived from research and reasoning, logos). Myths serve as powerful stories that help us explain and comprehend the world around us, especially the aspects that elude our immediate understanding. They offer insights into our universe, ourselves, and what is deeply true at a profound level, oftentimes transcending the realms of logic and reason.
Religions, with their elaborate myths, carry great meaning precisely because they tap into the power of storytelling that lies beneath literal interpretations of sacred stories. Even if the historical accuracy of religious myths is debatable, they contain psychological and spiritual truths that resonate with people across different eras. It is important to note that myths are not confined to ancient tales; we continually create myths to make sense of the world because our brain automatically functions as a storyteller.
Myths serve as a narration of the sacred history of a specific community or people group. It offers an explanation for how the present reality and the community itself came into existence. Beyond being a mere intellectual explanation or artistic symbolism, myths express, enhance, and codify ethical belief systems. They act as a pragmatic charter of primitive faith and moral wisdom, providing practical rules for the guidance of humanity. In many ways, a myth can be seen as the founding document of a society since they safeguard and enforce the values that govern the community. Far from being an idle tale, a myth holds a central place in shaping social norms and practices. Its significance transcends intellectual curiosity or entertainment, embodying the core beliefs and principles of a people group.
The Structure of Myths
Myths follow a consistent framework, incorporating language, spiritual and moral concepts, emotional content, and suggestions for future behavior. At their core, myths revolve around crucial existential concerns, framing them as opposing forces—heroes and monsters, gods and humans, life and death, heaven and hell, etc. The true power of myths lies in their ability to reconcile these seemingly irreconcilable opposites, often through the actions of deities or spiritual forces, providing resolution and relieving our existential anxieties.
What sets myths apart from other narratives is their incorporation of supernatural or superhuman elements. Mythic tales often revolve around characters that surpass human capabilities, such as cultural heroes like Gilgamesh. Through these extraordinary figures, myths recount the adventures and experiences of beings greater than ourselves, who become moral representatives of the trials we face every day.
The Cognitive Processes Behind Myth-Making
To understand how myths come to be, we must explore the cognitive processes at play within our brains. The creative act of myth-making engages all four basic cognitive functions: the quantitative, binary, causal, and existential functions. Of particular significance are the causal and binary functions, as myths delve into the causes of things and enable us to simplify complex relationships into basic polar opposites.
Our brain's capacity to reduce intricate concepts of time and space into simple pairs of opposites grants us a powerful method of ordering and understanding our external reality. It is through these cognitive processes that we shape and structure the myths we create.
When we refer to a religion's "myth," we are acknowledging its contribution to the formation and maintenance of social order. The term "myth" here emphasizes the efficacy and functional role of religious narratives, rather than their literal truth. In fact, questioning the truthfulness of a myth is almost nonsensical, as its significance lies in its ability to shape and guide society, not in its literal facticity.
The Universal Myth-Making Process
Myth-making is not limited to collective narratives; each of us actively constructs personal myths to interpret the world. These individual myths coexist with the myths inherited from our cultures and shape our perspectives. To illustrate this, let's consider a prehistoric clan faced with the death of one of its members. Through their grief, the clan's chieftain embarks on an introspective journey that leads to a profound myth-making experience.
Within the chieftain's brain, all of his emotional responses, visual stimuli, frustration, and binary oppositions intertwine to create a structured myth narrative. The brain's abstract and holistic processes unite, triggering a neurological resonance that evokes intense pleasure and calmness. In a state of both fear and rapture, the chieftain experiences a transformative insight, mythically resolving the conflict between life and death. The profound truth he perceives at that moment lingers as a sense of ultimate reality and meaning.
The myth-making brain is a remarkable aspect of human cognition, driving us to construct narratives that provide meaning and understanding. Our brains naturally seek to make sense of the world and our place within it. Myths, whether ancient religious tales or personal narratives constructed during Black Lives Matter protests, transcend mere falsehoods by offering deep psychological and spiritual truths, which will resonate across time.
So, the next time you encounter a myth, first recognize the fascinating workings of the myth-making brain and the socio-political (or existential) crisis that resulted in the myth in the first place. Then you can decide whether to reject or appropriate the myth's lessons for your own life.
Campbell and Moyers, The Power of Myth.
d’Aquili, “The Myth-Ritual Complex.”
d’Aquili, “The Neurobiological Bases of Myth and Concepts of Deity.”
Newberg, d’Aquili, and Rause, Why God Won’t Go Away.