When humanity began telling stories, it began by telling stories of war. Violent Bronze Age fiction, such as the "Iliad," the Bible and "Gilgamesh," cast long shadows over entire cultures, often justifying later battles and inspiring future militaries. That trend of spinning yarns of combat continues to this day. To understand the power of stories to shape modern conflicts, DARPA, the Defense Department's research arm, has initiated a program that will investigate how storytelling and narrative shape our neurobiology.
The DARPA program, titled "Narrative Networks," bases itself on the idea that human brains physically change so as to fit new information into coherent narratives. To date, there has been some research that shows people of different political leanings have brains that function differently, but this program will take this concept further and deeper than ever before. DARPA plans to not only figure out why hearing or reading a particular story may change someone's life, but also plans on developing sensors that can scan people's brains to identify those changes.
"Narratives exert a powerful influence on human thoughts and behavior. They consolidate memory, shape emotions, cue heuristics and biases in judgment, influence in-group/out-group distinctions, and may affect the fundamental contents of personal identity," reads the DARPA solicitation posted on Oct. 7. "It comes as no surprise that because of these influences stories are important in security contexts: for example, they change the course of insurgencies, frame negotiations, play a role in political radicalization, influence the methods and goals of violent social movements, and likely play a role in clinical conditions important to the military such as post-traumatic stress disorder."
Narrative Networks will unfold in two phases. The first will analyze the problem and attempt to forge connections between neurology researchers, computer engineers and social scientists. The second phase will attempt to transform that research into useful programs that military and civilian policymakers can train on social problems like insurgencies.
However, despite the functional goal, the early parts of this program seem more like a literature class at a liberal arts school than a secretive military operation. Some of the sub-goals of the project include "ascertaining exactly what function stories enact," and "[determining] what aspects of narratives are most likely to cause changes in moral judgments and via what mechanism."
Once DARPA's scientists figure out how stories change our brains, they plan on developing ways to measure those changes. Basically, the Defense Department wants a sensor that can tell whether or not someone stopped at a checkpoint has been influenced by radical or violent stories.
According to the online solicitation, a primarily goal of Narrative Networks is to: "determine what critical variables are missing from current influence models or must be incorporated into new influence models. Identify how those variables can best be identified, detected and measured. Identify what environmental variables are most critical for the influence process and develop methods for measuring them. Baseline against current technologies for detecting and measuring indirect indicators of neural activity (such as capillary dilation, galvanic skin response, eye pupil dilation, gaze direction, micro-facial feature analysis, etc.), and against current standoff technologies for more direct detection and measurement (such as sensing neurobiological compounds)."
A robot that can tell whether or not you've had an emotional reaction to a book? Forget those drones, this is the kind of out-there fringe science we've come to expect from DARPA.