Hardwired for Story
The story season is upon us. Once again, remotely or in person, we share beloved tales to help fend off the darkness. Ancient stories tell of lamps burning eight days and wise men following a star. Year after year, the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes larger, and Linus suggests the scraggly tree just needs a little love.
Stories grab our attention, engage the emotions, and stick in the memory more efficiently than dispassionate reasoning. They are quicker and easier to process. They prime us for the hormones to hug a child or run from danger. We evolved that way for survival. Our prehistoric ancestors used narrative to learn from each other's experience and pass that learning down through generations.
Not all stories are equal. Some glorify violence, perpetuate false conspiracy theories, or widen the gap between ingroup and outgroup. When such a story comes up over the holiday table, citing data or logic alone won’t get you far. Consider responding to story with story. Your personal anecdote may not change minds either, but it might begin to open a heart. That’s how we are wired.
Image: Sir John Everett Millais, The Boyhood of Raleigh, 1870. National Gallery. Walter Raleigh and his brother listen to an old sailor’s tales of adventure.
Thanks, Sarah. Nice reminder that writing literature is important work. In a recent conversation, two people bragged that they didn't remember the last time they read a book. I was agog. I'm sure they're still getting stories, through tvs and phones. But as Noam Chomsky says, we need to be very careful of the stories we consume, because they will define us.
12/14/2021 07:12:28 am
Rebecca, I love the Noam Chomsky quote, which I hadn't heard before. It is certainly true for me, especially the books I loved as a child. People bragging about the last time they read a book? How bizarre. Most of the books I read are pretty lightweight, I'll admit, but I couldn't imagine life without them.
12/16/2021 09:35:40 am
"Responding with story" clicked for me! I was going into the grocery the other day wearing my mask. A man got out of his car, grunted, and said, "Really? Still masking?" I told him, "Once upon a time, I had cancer. Some things you can't prevent. Some things you can." He pulled out his mask and put it on - and said, "Sorry."
12/17/2021 06:37:41 am
Wow! Kate, this is a powerful story. And an affirmation that our stories are worth telling, regardless of reaction, because you never know which time the story will hit home.
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I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.