Lea B. Vaughn, Feeling at Home: Learning, Law, Cognitive Science, and Narrative, 43 McGeorge L. Rev. 999 (2012), https://digitalcommons.law.uw.edu/faculty-articles/433
McGeorge Law Review
brain science, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, stories
What is the "how and why" of law's affinity for narrative? In order to explain why the use of stories is such an effective teaching and presentation strategy in the law, this paper will consider theories and accounts from cognitive as well as evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and, briefly, cultural anthropology. This account seeks to address "how" narrative helps us learn and use the law as well as "why" we are so compelled to use stories in teaching and in practice.
Brain science, simplified here, suggests that the first task is to grab someone's attention. Emotionally charged events are more likely to capture our attention and to be remembered. Because of their emotional content, stories and narrative (which will be used interchangeably here) seize the attention of listeners and readers, students and jurors. In turn, this emotional fixation focuses attention on context and meaning. Studies suggest that this context is the platform that allows later and successive integration of details. Thus, stories work because they focus attention and provide a context for learning the details, that is, the law. Moreover, the same principles that apply to the success of using stories in the classroom also bear fruit in practice. Our culture, and perhaps our genetic make-up, compels us to use stories as a way to both comprehend and transmit the law.
In this article, I will discuss three bodies of knowledge that seek to account for how and why stories are such powerful devices for human learning. First, neuroscience and cognitive psychology seek to explain the how of learning. By explaining how attention, memory, and learning occur in the brain, scientists have provided a useful and salient account of how stories help us to learn. Second, a brief look at cultural anthropology suggests that it is a universal feature of all human cultures that we learn and transmit knowledge by storytelling. Finally, evolutionary psychology, a relatively new field, posits that the appeal of stories goes beyond the cultural; rather, this mechanism for learning may be hard-wired into our brains. That is, our appreciation of the arts, particularly of storytelling and music, may be adaptations that have continuing use for learning given the plasticity of our brain/mind.
In Part II of this article, I will briefly address what constitutes a "story." This concept is impossible to confine to one definition. The scientific sources used here describe stories in a different way than do literary theorists. In Part III, I will describe the three accounts that shed light on why stories help us to learn, beginning with current neuroscience findings on learning, memory, context, and attention. It then will move, briefly, to cultural anthropology, and end with the answer that is provided by evolutionary psychology: we learn from stories because we have evolved to do so. In the conclusion, I illustrate how these insights bear on learning as well as on practicing the law.