I was pleasantly surprised to come across a WordPress blog titled Why Story Matters by Mike Dimartino, co-creator of Avatar: The Last Airbender, a show I’ve written about previously on Ekostories. Discussing a video from the World Science Festival titled Why We Tell Stories: The Science of Narrative in one of his posts, Dimartino teases out some fascinating insights explored during the involved panel discussion. As Ekostories is focused on exploring the potential of stories to generate connections and environmental understanding, I would like to share his key takeaways and comment briefly on them.
Stories for Change
Research suggests that story has the ability to change us. This is a powerful idea which we can see play out in places like advertising and politics. We can be swayed to buy a particular product or vote for a particular person based on the story the advertiser or politician tells us.
Stories that shape attitudes and behaviour occur all around us. Many successful forms of advertising rely on narratives to trigger emotional connections with particular products and services. In the political realm, campaigns regularly construct narratives that emphasize change or stability to appeal to prospective voters. Elections are often won or lost by a campaign’s ability to depict hopeful candidates as charismatic and decisive leaders, even though in many instances those qualities have little to do with real policy decisions or track records.
Stories for Understanding
Fiction helps us to create better mental models of each other. This helps us empathize with others more easily. Researchers discovered that parts of the brain that are activated for understanding someone are also activated by story. With fiction, unlike in real life, we can understand why a character behaves a certain way (even if we don’t condone it) because we are aware of his or her inner thoughts and deepest secrets.
The ability of stories to cultivate empathy and understanding for others is something I’ve touched on in past Ekostories. In 2010, neuroscientists at Princeton discovered that storytellers and listeners engage in a process of “neural coupling” in which their brain activities become effectively synchronized. The more “neurally-coupled” they are, the greater their understanding of each other becomes. When we read an absorbing book or hear a riveting anecdote, we become more attuned to the motivations and actions of others. This has fascinating and significant implications. Want to have your points and ideas understood? Tell stories.
Stories for Meaning
Humans are designed to find meaning. Stories can help us find meaning in what seems at times to be a meaningless world.
The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile, but that it is indifferent. If we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death, our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light. (From Wikipedia – Stanley Kubrick: Interviews, 2001)
I believe stories can serve as delivery vehicles for that light. Whether they are drawn from scientific fact, religious texts, or personal experiences, narratives help us create patterns and meaning in what can appear to be a random and chaotic world. Human beings need stories, are innately drawn to them, cannot live well without them. I’m not sure where to place the need for stories on the Maslow hierarchy of needs, but I suspect they may be closer to the bottom than the top of the pyramid.
Stories for Bonding
Stories are the social glue that hold a tribe or society together.
For good or for ill, stories have the power to unite people towards a common cause or purpose. Grand narratives can encompass entire paradigms of thought and behaviour. The grand narrative that drives modern capitalist society is founded upon assumptions of continuous progress and expansion. As I wrote in my exploration of the short film Overview, much of the ecological crisis and our existential distress may be due to the deterioration of that particular narrative.
Stories for Testing
Stories are simulations of the social world. Keith Oatley describes stories like they are flight simulators or virtual realities, where we can test out different social situations without the social risks.
As I wrote in my last entry about The Direction of the Road, I enjoy speculative fiction because they can serve as thought-experiments, what if scenarios that can generate potentially realistic and occasionally fantastical worlds. But even “normal” fiction can engage our imaginations, get us to think before acting, immerse us in various hypotheticals without risk. From an evolutionary perspective, this propensity for producing and consuming stories makes tremendous sense. Prehistoric cave-dwellers can test-drive the best ways to kill a mammoth or to defend against a predator in their minds before actually having to commit to those potentially dangerous actions. But stories remain indispensable today. Stories can help sharpen and hone our mental faculties to face an increasingly complex world, allowing us to break out of patterns of conventional thinking and tackle new challenges in innovative ways.
If you have an hour to spare, I encourage you to check out the video. The panel discussion gets underway around 15 minutes in and includes Keith Oatley, professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, Paul Bloom, professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University, novelists Joyce Carol Oates and Jeffrey Eugenides, with public radio producer and broadcast journalist Jay Allison as the moderator.