Contact Addresses:

Dr. Mike Sinding
Research Fellow, ELINAS
FAU Erlangen

Dr. Aura Heydenreich
Research Fellow, ELINAS
FAU Erlangen

Prof. Dr. Klaus Mecke
Institute for Theoretical Physics


Narrative, Cognition & Science Lab

Orangerie, Erlangen
21–23 October 2016

OverviewPractical InformationDownload Program


Confirmed Keynote Speakers:

  • Marie-Laure Ryan
    Independent Scholar in Residence, University of Colorado
    Narrative as/and complex system/s: decentralized control, emergence and plot

    This presentation will examine the applicability of two of the features of complex systems—decentralized control and emergence—to narrative theory. I will propose a network-based model of plot that associates narrative complexity with the connectivity of a network of interpersonal relations, as well as with a discrepancy between the linear succession of events in narrative time and the non-linear causal network that explains events. Then I will turn to the question of narrative emergence, and I will relate it to issues of simulation and interactivity. [Close]

  • H. Porter Abbott
    Research Professor Emeritus of English, University of California, Santa Barbara
    What Does it Mean to Be Mad?
    Insanity as Narrative Template and Interpretive Default


    In 1959, Michel Foucault asked, “What does it mean to be mad, and what is the qualitative distinction between ‘sanity’ and ‘insanity’?” Since then there has been a wealth of work on the enabling functions of madness or insanity as a social classification and with it much valuable work on madness in/and literature (Feder, Felman, Sass, Thiher, Gilbert & Gubar, Cross). In my own work on the subject, I have been pursuing several interconnected threads: how the need to diagnose is both represented in the text and aroused in the reader, how we are cued as readers to recognize madness to begin with, how delayed recognition works recursively in our understanding of what precedes it, and the representational challenge of inherently fuzzy concepts like diagnostic medical categories. My approach is cogno-formalist in that it maintains attention on both sides of the transaction between reader and text.

    The range of instances and types that can be squeezed into the category of the insane is, of course, wide. And the questions are many. What are the tell-tale signs as the frame of madness slips into place (Oh, he’s crazy)? How porous is the frame? Which conditions are necessary, which probable? Are there preference-rules? Once framed as madness, how does this alter the way a character continues to be read? There is, in short, a complex processual chemistry in both the lead-up and what follows. In cases of delayed recognition or emergent madness, there are additional questions of how both the character and plot are recursively reconstructed. And how does this compare with other kinds of characterological template-shift: spies, multiple personalities, artefactual “characters” (robots), extraterrestrials in human form.

    These problems of narrative representation and response, chime with the problems that have faced successive editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The latest of these editions, DSM-5, has been subjected to a withering critique by Thomas Insel, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, who has complained that, instead of basing its diagnoses on the causes of mental disorders, the manual continues to base its diagnoses “on a consensus about clusters of clinical symptoms.” This in turn echoes Ralph Savarese’s critique of the way representations and diagnoses by “neurotypicals” miss the “irreducible particularity” of children identified as autistic. And both of these critiques echo the commonest critique of fictional characterization that fails to particularize.

    The questions I raise and try to address in this presentation all bear on hotly debated issues of narrative, representation, and classification as they occur in both fictional discourse and the discourse of science. Needless to say, I can only hope to add as much or as little clarification as provocation. [Close]

  • Bruce Clarke
    Paul Whitfield Horn Professor of Literature and Science, Texas Tech University
    Narrating Intellectual Microbes

    Three American hard-SF novels of recent memory depict the creation or discovery of microbes sufficiently intelligent to initiate abstract linguistic communication with human hosts: Greg Bear’s Blood Music (1985) and the third and fourth installments of biologist Joan Slonczewski’s Elysium Cycle, The Children Star (1998) and Brain Plague (2002). My talk will examine the different ways that Bear and Slonczewski work out their microbial gambits. Bear’s “noocytes” are the fortuitous outcome of a bioengineering experiment that graduates from E. coli to human lymphocytes; but once they come to self-consciousness, as a pioneer species the noocytes are anything but symbiotic. In contrast, Slonczewski’s “micros” arise in The Children Star as an indigenous climax community of intelligent microbes running the biosphere of the planet Prokaryon. Once discovered, however, the Prokaryon micros are taken up as endosymbiotic residents, as brain-enhancers within human hosts on other planets. Brain Plague unfolds how the divergent evolutions of these micro colonies depend upon the varied ethical sensibilities of their “gods,” those humans who have sought out their problematic infection. My discussion will glance at some more of the hard science under speculative elaboration in each instance. But it will center its main attention on the narrative devices by which Bear and Slonczewski depict the emergence of dialogue and the development of social communication between the micro- and macrocosms of their storyworlds. [Close]

  • Mark Turner
    Institute Professor and Professor of Cognitive Science, Case Western Reserve University
    Narrative Compressions in Mathematics and Science

    Human beings, dealing with vast and otherwise unmanageable conceptual networks and relations, need to be able to chunk and compress them to create bundles of meaning tractable within the limits of basic human mental operations. This talk will present principles and mechanisms of compression, emphasizing compressions to narrative structures. [Close]

  • Hans Ulrich Fuchs
    Professor of Physics, Zurich University of Applied Sciences at Winterthur
    Founding Director, Center for Narrative in Science

    Narrative Framing of Natural Scenes—Stories of Forces of Nature and a Model of Perception at Different Scales

    Proposing the notion of narrative framing of natural scenes is an attempt at extending the cognitive linguistic concept of framing from small-scale experience and associated linguistic elements (words or sentences) to the perception of large-scale events in nature and their rendering in stories. Expressed differently, it is an attempt at extending models of the embodied mind to deal with narrative structures of science.

    I use the term narrative framing in a double sense, to represent (1) the enlisting of narrative intelligence in the perception of phenomena and (2) the telling of stories that contain conceptual elements used in the creation of scientific models of these phenomena.

    Cognitive linguists tell us that there are imaginative products of our embodied mind such as conceptual metaphors that result from the projection of small-scale schematic structures. We can demonstrate such products to exist in macroscopic physical science as well. It makes sense, however, to see these not just as emerging in a bottom-up process of creative assembly; we are equally informed about their meaning by perception and conceptual and linguistic elaboration of a medium-scale gestalt, which I call Force of Nature. Examples of forces of nature are fluids, heat, electricity, substances, or motion—we structure all of them equally by projecting schemas of polarity (tension), quantity, and power, along with force dynamic schemas. Conversely, the gestalt of force of nature in macroscopic physical settings informs us about its aspects, which are known as the concepts and relations of continuum physics.

    To arrive at a model of narrative framing of natural scenes we should extend our view to include perception of even larger-scale phenomena such as a forest fire or the birth of a child, which might be perceived as stories nature tells. While it is not clear to me at this point if we can safely propose that we perceive temporally longer and spatially larger phenomena as narrative units (gestalts), there is evidence that such units exist as narratives of forces of nature told in natural history or in stories crafted for children. Such stories are told not only in informal settings and for small children; rather, we can understand scientific models as story-worlds, and simulations of models as stories told against the backdrop of these worlds—this view is particularly relevant in the case of complex systems. Importantly, forces are understood not only in terms of their aspects; rather, their meaning is clarified in a top-down manner by the larger-scale narrative structures where a force such as heat is imagined as an agent acting in and suffering through events that unfold in a story-world. Stories imaginatively frame large-scale events and inform us about the meaning of the (lexical) concepts we employ to talk about what is happening and why. [Close]


What would a narratology of science look like? A narratology of science-in-literature? How might principles of cognition bring narrative and science together?

Narrative is a fundamental, probably natural, mode of thought and meaning-making. Science is now a central, more culturally-organized mode of knowing the world, of imagining, exploring, modeling, and acting on it. Narrative and science are not self-evidently related-indeed they may seem opposed. Yet many connecting threads can be discovered.
    Scientists are adept and versatile narrators, telling many kinds of stories in many different genres and media. They recount unfoldings of events, at sometimes uncanny scales-from a particle collision at near light-speed, to the evolution of life, to the history of the universe-in order to interpret them. They narrate as individuals or in teams of thousands. Their events may be natural or manufactured, observed or inferred, objective or subjective or both. Scientists also tell human stories of developing hypotheses, arguments, theories and experiments, and they speak to many publics. Scientific stories may operate at the most concrete or the most abstract levels imaginable. Even mathematical proofs and physics equations have narrative qualities, some suggest.
    Narrativity appears at various stages of scientific processes: informal speculation, thought experiments, experimental design and execution, measurement, argumentation, writing and revision, theorizing, paradigm-shifting, popularizing, caricaturing (boosting and bashing), retrospective histories and philosophies of fields, and more.
    Scientists may adapt elements of literary narration (intentionally or not); in grand narratives or close case studies, understandings of nature become emplotted, shaped.

Complementarily, non-scientists often tell stories of science. In proto-scientific eras, knowledge-formation is arguably allied with myth, religion and magic: physics is entangled with metaphysics, chemistry with alchemy. And myth persists in modern discourses of science: myths of selfless or self-serving geniuses, of the promises and perils of technology.
    Journalists report and (attempt to) interpret scientific findings. Politicians and legal professionals grapple with scientific advice to decide social policies. Teachers tell science's stories to students-starting with simple versions, as ladders to be kicked away once the rung of the next-best version is grasped. Other versions circulate on social media (for better or worse), mutating as they move. Literary narrators draw ideas and forms from scientific writing, as topics, themes, images and structures. Narrative art reimagines physical forces, forms of causality and time, natural orders, whole cosmologies-inflecting partial scientific understanding with intuitions of pattern and meaning.
    Much excellent scholarship analyzes exchanges between science and narrative. In addition, cognitive scientists have explored narrative's centrality to mental processes and products, and literary scholars drawing on cognitive science have produced far-reaching reinterpretations of basic concepts of narrative. Yet there remains a need for deeper understanding of the processes by which science can move into narrative, and (especially) vice-versa-deeper in the sense of more detailed, more precise, more systematic, more extensively informed by theory and practice, both narrative and scientific. The "narrative turn" has transformed the human and social sciences, but we have yet to take the full measure of narrative in the context of the physical sciences. The "cognitive turn" suggests that cognition may be a key to the deeper understanding we seek.
    In this light, we propose a dialogue involving a direct and close focus on the intersections of narrative, cognition and science. This focus defines a very wide field of exploration, given the complexities of these terms, and we hope to inspire a rich discussion of new dimensions of these intersections.

We encourage consideration of questions on a range of topics bridging our foci:

  • How do scientific thought, practice and communication use narrative qualities? How does narrative cognition enable and reflect scientific cognition? How do scientists see their work as involving story? What forms of cognition overlap but contrast with narrative forms, and how? e.g. abstraction, ambiguity-reduction, visualization, mathematics, description, argument.

  • What are the implications of the first questions for epistemology, ontology, communication? Does anyone still think science is "just another narrative"? What alternatives to the relativist/absolutist polarity have developed in the wake of the "science wars"? What does the future hold?

  • Are there identifiable structures or qualities specific to scientific narratives? What kinds of narrators, characters, plots, causalities, chronologies, discourse structures, rhetorics, emotions, themes and ideologies do we find? What parts of narrative theory resonate with science communities?

  • What are the functions of scientific narratives? How is narrative used to describe, predict, explain, enlighten, persuade, entertain?

  • How are scientific thought and communication adapted into extra-scientific narrative? How can they affect narrative form and processing?

  • How might a consideration of scientific narrative change narrative theory, and cognitive theory? From recognizing previously neglected forms of narrative and thought to revising major concepts.

  • All forms of narrative, cognitive, and scientific processes, artifacts and theories are welcome.


Please send 400-word abstracts by 31 August 2016 to Mike Sinding ( Please include a brief bio/bibliography, e-mail address and postal address. Talks should be 25 minutes long.

Key Dates:

Abstracts due: 31 August 2016
Decisions + Program: 15 September 2016
Registration: 30 September 2016
Symposium: 21-23 October 2016