Saturday, September 15, 2012

Stories, Brains and Human Evolution

Teachers understand the power of the story. When we share personal anecdotes, we capture the students’ full attention. We explain concepts with metaphors and images, sort of snapshots or thumbnails of a possible story. Effective presentations use visuals to create the emotional resonance necessary for the listener who is considering the veracity of your message. Presentation gurus like Nancy Duarte and Gar Reyonolds teach us that the story arc in the presentation is just as important as the slides and visuals that we use.

 Like many others from a liberal arts background, I understand the power of stories from a Jungian perspective: the story’s universal appeal is explained by the archetypal self who seeks to individuate. Essentially, you must be the hero of your own story as you grow to adulthood and psychic maturity. Jungian depth psychology has been how I understand the power of the story. 

But today I considered other explanations after listening to Dr. Ginger Campbell (Books and Ideas Podcast) interview Jonathan Gottschull’s new book, How Storytelling Makes Us Human.
 Gottschull is an literary scholar at Washington and Jefferson College who was struck by the dangerous landscape of the make-believe stories he observed in his two young daughters. He wondered about why children create gore, death and danger in their play and storytelling. Gottschull began to think about the evolutionary forces that would shape the need to tell such stories and explain why we derive such pleasure from danger. In Dr. Campbell’s interview, he notes that fiction and fantasy of children (think of Neverland and Grimm’s fairytales) is a scary and dangerous place fraught with violence, filled with hobgoblins and moral abomination. From an evolutionary perspective, the purpose of this conflict was to provide the brain with vicarious experiences so we could learn possible responses to potential danger. Fiction's purpose is biological. It prepares us for what could be; a kind of ‘training manual for the big dilemmas of life’.

 Gottschull is interested in the neural underpinnings of the imaginary experience. Recent experiments suggests that the brain responds as a participant when reading about the emotions of the protagonist. It is in the ‘this is real and happening to me’ mode. Dr. Campbell talked about her own emotional investment in the character she was role playing in the video game Mass Effect. Video games are a modern version of the ancient story. Dr. Campbell’s interview with Gottschull was well worth one hour of listening time and important enough for me to commit to sharing it on this blog. We intuitively understand why stories are important and now we can look forward to neurological explanations for the power of the story. I encourage you to listen to this interview and the next time you give a presentation or read a great story with your students, remember that fully engaged brain wants to experience the conflict, problems and everything else that comes with the story as a real event.

Interesting Post Script:

I taught in the same school with a teacher for one entire year before we realized that she had been my student in my first year of teaching.  Neither one of us remembered the other's name or face but she remembered my stories.  One day when she was telling me about a teacher she had in high school and sharing the stories this teacher had told, I realized that those were my stories and that teacher was me!  Think of it.  She did not remember the content of the class, my name or my face but she remembered my stories.

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