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A brilliant concept -- Compulsive Narrative Syndrome

By Andrew Pollack on 01/18/2015 at 11:18 AM EST

I first came across this brilliant concept in Joel Shepherd’s "23 Years on Fire", the fourth novel in his Cassandra Kresnov series. The series started out a little juvenile but has gotten steadily more serious as the depth and age of the characters has increased.

Here is Shepherd's characters explaining CNS -- tell me this doesn't ring a bell in modern politics.

“The human brain is trained to look for and identify patterns, but in abstract concepts, fixed and unarguable facts are hard to find. So the brain looks for narratives instead, stories that can tie together various ideas and facts in a way that seems to make sense, to make a pattern. And the human brain, always seeking a pattern as a basic cognitive function, will latch onto a narrative pattern compulsively, and use that pattern as a framework within which to store new information, like a tradesman honing his skill, or someone learning a new language. That’s why religions tell such great stories, the story makes a pattern within which everything makes sense. A synchronicity of apparent facts. Political ideologies, too. Humans are suckers for a great story because we can’t resist the logical pattern it contains."

“When you’re learning a new skill, discarding irrelevant information and organizing the relevant stuff within that framework is good. But in ideologies, it means any information that doesn’t fit the ideological narrative is literally discarded, and won’t be remembered . . . which is why you can argue facts with ideologues and they’ll just ignore you. They’re not just being stubborn, their brains are literally structurally incapable of processing what they perceive as pattern-anomalous data. That’s why some ideologues get so upset when you offer facts that don’t match their pattern, it’s like you’re assaulting them.

So what Compulsive Narrative Syndrome really says is that being a one-eyed partisan isn’t just a matter of taste or values, it’s actually a cognitive, neurological condition that we all suffer from to some degree. And it explains why some people’s ideologies can change, because sometimes a new pattern is identified that overrides the old one. And it explains why the most intelligent people are often the most partisan and least objective, because pattern recognition is a function of higher intelligence. If you want an objective opinion, ask a stupid person.”

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re: A brilliant concept -- Compulsive Narrative SyndromeBy Craig Wiseman on 01/18/2015 at 12:58 PM EST
All good points. This also explains much of my interaction with IBM over the
last 10 years.
re: A brilliant concept -- Compulsive Narrative SyndromeBy marco on 03/09/2015 at 06:41 AM EDT
I did a search on cns after reading the same book you did, you are right it is
re: A brilliant concept -- Compulsive Narrative SyndromeBy Phillip on 04/20/2015 at 05:23 PM EDT
I loved this concept when I came across. My thought is we all suffer from CNS
at times. The difficult problem is dealing with those folks who will not look
at the data or other concepts.
re: A brilliant concept -- Compulsive Narrative SyndromeBy Kevin on 10/25/2016 at 01:58 AM EDT
I think the point in the book is that CNS (or confirmation bias) is thought of
as an obstacle to abstract reasoning, since we ignore useful data. However, in
this scifi world artificial intelligence research showed that CNS is a
necessity to high level abstract reasoning (by limiting inputs to some
manageable quantity for processing). So it's both a strength and a weakness.
re: A brilliant concept -- Compulsive Narrative SyndromeBy Jer on 06/05/2015 at 11:18 AM EDT
Interesting post, but you lost me with the last two sentences.

The fact that pattern recognition is a function of higher intelligence does not
mean one's cognitive ability is defined by that function and that function
only. I imagine, conversely, that the more intelligent a person is, the easier
it would be for them to "rise above" the basic pattern-recognition function
perhaps simply by recognizing it as a pattern itself and henceforth taking it
into consideration.
re: A brilliant concept -- Compulsive Narrative SyndromeBy Dimitris Krekoukias on 07/10/2015 at 10:48 AM EDT
This is really what's called Confirmation Bias.

Same concept.

But I do like Compulsive Narrative Syndrome more :)


re: A brilliant concept -- Compulsive Narrative SyndromeBy Kevin on 10/25/2016 at 01:49 AM EDT
thanks - excellent point
re: A brilliant concept -- Compulsive Narrative SyndromeBy Kevin on 10/25/2016 at 01:45 AM EDT
Just finished the book. CND is a brilliant concept. Immediately searched
online for more info, since it really struck a chord.

Not sure about the smart/stupid line. I would say ask a child, not a dumb
person. Just someone less "experienced" who hasn't acquired so many ingrained
beliefs. Or a very old person - who has seen so many beliefs overturned that
all are now open for examination.

Also, I suspect really smart people are on the lookout for new patterns, that
others have missed. We all want to make some great discovery.
re: A brilliant concept -- Compulsive Narrative SyndromeBy Kevin on 10/25/2016 at 01:46 AM EDT
sorry - CNS
re: A brilliant concept -- Compulsive Narrative SyndromeBy Darren Petts on 08/14/2020 at 02:58 PM EDT
When I first came across CNS it struck such a chord with me I looked it up to
see if it was a real syndrome. Whilst no syndrome is actually called CNS it
does explain the actions of conspiracy theorists and confirmation bias vastly
better than any medical journal ever has. I assume the better explanation is
because Joel Shepherd is a skilled wordsmith whereas medical papers are written
by people who are not.

I paid such attention to it because it made me realise I was suffering from
CNS, not to a massive extent, but to a sufficient extent to place my views on
some subjects askew from where the facts would dictate they be. This was a real
eye opener for me, particularly the inability to argue with those affected. I
now never waste my time arguing facts with CNS sufferers but instead try to
convince them they have CNS.

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