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The Secrets Of Storytelling: Why We Love A Good Yarn

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    The Secrets Of Storytelling: Why We Love A Good Yarn Our Love For Telling Tales Reveals The Workings Of The Mind By Jeremy Hsu Scientific American Mind
    Message 1 of 1 , Sep 22, 2008
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      The Secrets Of Storytelling: Why We Love A Good Yarn
      Our Love For Telling Tales Reveals The Workings Of The Mind
      By Jeremy Hsu
      Scientific American Mind
      September 18, 2008

      When Brad Pitt tells Eric Bana in the 2004 film Troy
      that "there are no pacts between lions and men," he is
      not reciting a clever line from the pen of a Hollywood
      screenwriter. He is speaking Achilles' words in English
      as Homer wrote them in Greek more than 2,000 years ago
      in the Iliad. The tale of the Trojan War has captivated
      generations of audiences while evolving from its origins
      as an oral epic to written versions and, finally, to
      several film adaptations. The power of this story to
      transcend time, language and culture is clear even
      today, evidenced by Troy's robust success around the

      Popular tales do far more than entertain, however.
      Psychologists and neuroscientists have recently become
      fascinated by the human predilection for storytelling.
      Why does our brain seem to be wired to enjoy stories?
      And how do the emotional and cognitive effects of a
      narrative influence our beliefs and real-world

      The answers to these questions seem to be rooted in our
      history as a social animal. We tell stories about other
      people and for other people. Stories help us to keep
      tabs on what is happening in our communities. The safe,
      imaginary world of a story may be a kind of training
      ground, where we can practice interacting with others
      and learn the customs and rules of society. And stories
      have a unique power to persuade and motivate, because
      they appeal to our emotions and capacity for empathy.

      A Good Yarn Storytelling is one of the few human traits
      that are truly universal across culture and through all
      of known history. Anthropologists find evidence of
      folktales everywhere in ancient cultures, written in
      Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, Chinese, Egyptian and Sumerian.
      People in societies of all types weave narratives, from
      oral storytellers in hunter-gatherer tribes to the
      millions of writers churning out books, television shows
      and movies. And when a characteristic behavior shows up
      in so many different societies, researchers pay
      attention: its roots may tell us something about our
      evolutionary past.

      To study storytelling, scientists must first define what
      constitutes a story, and that can prove tricky. Because
      there are so many diverse forms, scholars often define
      story structure, known as narrative, by explaining what
      it is not. Exposition contrasts with narrative by being
      a simple, straightforward explanation, such as a list of
      facts or an encyclopedia entry. Another standard
      approach defines narrative as a series of causally
      linked events that unfold over time. A third definition
      hinges on the typical narrative's subject matter: the
      interactions of intentional agents-characters with
      minds-who possess various motivations.

      However narrative is defined, people know it when they
      feel it. Whether fiction or nonfiction, a narrative
      engages its audience through psychological realism-
      recognizable emotions and believable interactions among

      "Everyone has a natural detector for psychological
      realism," says Raymond A. Mar, assistant professor of
      psychology at York University in Toronto. "We can tell
      when something rings false."

      But the best stories-those retold through generations
      and translated into other languages-do more than simply
      present a believable picture. These tales captivate
      their audience, whose emotions can be inextricably tied
      to those of the story's characters. Such immersion is a
      state psychologists call "narrative transport."

      Researchers have only begun teasing out the relations
      among the variables that can initiate narrative
      transport. A 2004 study by psychologist Melanie C.
      Green, now at the University of North Carolina at Chapel
      Hill, showed that prior knowledge and life experience
      affected the immersive experience. Volunteers read a
      short story about a gay man attending his college
      fraternity's reunion. Those who had friends or family
      members who were homosexual reported higher
      transportation, and they also perceived the story
      events, settings and characters to be more realistic.
      Transportation was also deeper for participants with
      past experiences in fraternities or sororities.
      "Familiarity helps, and a character to identify with
      helps," Green explains.

      Other research by Green has found that people who
      perform better on tests of empathy, or the capacity to
      perceive another person's emotions, become more easily
      transported regardless of the story. "There seems to be
      a reasonable amount of variation, all the way up to
      people who can get swept away by a Hallmark commercial,"
      Green says.

      In Another's Shoes Empathy is part of the larger ability
      humans have to put themselves in another person's shoes:
      we can attribute mental states-awareness, intent-to
      another entity. Theory of mind, as this trait is known,
      is crucial to social interaction and communal living-and
      to understanding stories.

      Children develop theory of mind around age four or five.
      A 2007 study by psychologists Daniela O'Neill and
      Rebecca Shultis, both at the University of Waterloo in
      Ontario, found that five-year-olds could follow the
      thoughts of an imaginary character but that three-year-
      olds could not. The children saw model cows in both a
      barn and a field, and the researchers told them that a
      farmer sitting in the barn was thinking of milking the
      cow in the field. When then asked to point to the cow
      the farmer wanted to milk, three-year-olds pointed to
      the cow in the barn-they had a hard time following the
      character's thoughts to the cow in the field. Five-year-
      olds, however, pointed to the cow in the field,
      demonstrating theory of mind.

      Perhaps because theory of mind is so vital to social
      living, once we possess it we tend to imagine minds
      everywhere, making stories out of everything. A classic
      1944 study by Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel, then at
      Smith College, elegantly demonstrated this tendency. The
      psychologists showed people an animation of a pair of
      triangles and a circle moving around a square and asked
      the participants what was happening. The subjects
      described the scene as if the shapes had intentions and
      motivations-for example, "The circle is chasing the
      triangles." Many studies since then have confirmed the
      human predilection to make characters and narratives out
      of whatever we see in the world around us.

      But what could be the evolutionary advantage of being so
      prone to fantasy? "One might have expected natural
      selection to have weeded out any inclination to engage
      in imaginary worlds rather than the real one," writes
      Steven Pinker, a Harvard University evolutionary
      psychologist, in the April 2007 issue of Philosophy and
      Literature. Pinker goes on to argue against this claim,
      positing that stories are an important tool for learning
      and for developing relationships with others in one's
      social group. And most scientists are starting to agree:
      stories have such a powerful and universal appeal that
      the neurological roots of both telling tales and
      enjoying them are probably tied to crucial parts of our
      social cognition.

      As our ancestors evolved to live in groups, the
      hypothesis goes, they had to make sense of increasingly
      complex social relationships. Living in a community
      requires keeping tabs on who the group members are and
      what they are doing. What better way to spread such
      information than through storytelling?

      Indeed, to this day people spend most of their
      conversations telling personal stories and gossiping. A
      1997 study by anthropologist and evolutionary biologist
      Robin Dunbar, then at the University of Liverpool in
      England, found that social topics accounted for 65
      percent of speaking time among people in public places,
      regardless of age or gender. Anthropologists note that
      storytelling could have also persisted in human culture
      because it promotes social cohesion among groups and
      serves as a valuable method to pass on knowledge to
      future generations. But some psychologists are starting
      to believe that stories have an important effect on
      individuals as well-the imaginary world may serve as a
      proving ground for vital social skills.

      "If you're training to be a pilot, you spend time in a
      flight simulator," says Keith Oatley, a professor of
      applied cognitive psychology at the University of
      Toronto. Preliminary research by Oatley and Mar suggests
      that stories may act as "flight simulators" for social
      life. A 2006 study hinted at a connection between the
      enjoyment of stories and better social abilities. The
      researchers used both self-report and assessment tests
      to determine social ability and empathy among 94
      students, whom they also surveyed for name recognition
      of authors who wrote narrative fiction and nonnarrative
      nonfiction. They found that students who had had more
      exposure to fiction tended to perform better on social
      ability and empathy tests. Although the results are
      provocative, the authors caution that the study did not
      probe cause and effect-exposure to stories may hone
      social skills as the researchers suspect, but perhaps
      socially inclined individuals simply seek out more
      narrative fiction.

      In support for the idea that stories act as practice for
      real life are imaging studies that reveal similar brain
      ac-tivity during viewings of real people and animated
      cha-racters. In 2007 Mar conducted a study using Waking
      Life, a 2001 film in which live footage of actors was
      traced so that the characters appear to be animated
      drawings. Mar used functional magnetic resonance imaging
      to scan volunteers' brains as they watched matching
      footage of the real actors and the corresponding
      animated characters. During the real footage, brain
      activity spiked strongly in the superior temporal sulcus
      and the temporoparietal junction, areas associated with
      processing biological motion. The same areas lit up to a
      lesser extent for the animated footage. "This difference
      in brain activation could be how we distinguish between
      fantasy and reality," Mar says.

      As psychologists probe our love of stories for clues
      about our evolutionary history, other researchers have
      begun examining the themes and character types that
      appear consistently in narratives from all cultures.
      Their work is revealing universal similarities that may
      reflect a shared, evolved human psyche.

      Boy Meets Girl . A 2006 study by Jonathan Gottschall, an
      English professor at Washington & Jefferson College,
      found relevant depictions of romantic love in folktales
      scattered across space and time. The idea of romantic
      love has not been traditionally considered to be a
      cultural universal because of the many societies in
      which marriage is mainly an economic or utilitarian
      consideration. But Gottschall's study suggests that
      rather than being a construct of certain societies,
      romantic love must have roots in our common ancestry. In
      other words, romance-not just sex-has a biological basis
      in the brain.

      "You do find these commonalities," Gottschall says. He
      is one of several scholars, known informally as literary
      Darwinists, who assert that story themes do not simply
      spring from each specific culture. Instead the literary
      Darwinists propose that stories from around the world
      have universal themes reflecting our common underlying

      Another of Gottschall's studies published earlier this
      year reveals a persistent mind-set regarding gender
      roles. His team did a content analysis of 90 folktale
      collections, each consisting of 50 to 100 stories, from
      societies running the gamut from industrial nations to
      hunter-gatherer tribes. They found overwhelmingly
      similar gender depictions emphasizing strong male
      protagonists and female beauty. To counterbalance the
      possibility that male storytellers were biasing gender
      idealizations, the team also sampled cultures that were
      more egalitarian and less patriarchal.

      "We couldn't even find one culture that had more
      emphasis on male beauty," Gottschall notes, explaining
      that the study sample had three times as many male as
      compared with female main characters and six times as
      many references to female beauty as to male beauty. That
      difference in gender stereotypes, he suggests, may
      reflect the classic Darwinian emphasis on reproductive
      health in women, signified by youth and beauty, and on
      the desirable male ability to provide for a family,
      signaled by physical power and success.

      Other common narrative themes reveal our basic wants and
      needs. "Narrative involves agents pursuing some goal,"
      says Patrick Colm Hogan, professor of English and
      comparative literature at the University of Connecticut.
      "The standard goals are partially a result of how our
      emotion systems are set up."

      Hogan does not consider himself a literary Darwinist,
      but his research on everything from Hindu epic poems
      such as the Ramayana to modern film adaptations of
      Shakespeare supports the idea that stories reveal
      something about human emotions seated in the mind. As
      many as two thirds of the most respected stories in
      narrative traditions seem to be variations on three
      narrative patterns, or prototypes, according to Hogan.
      The two more common prototypes are romantic and heroic
      scenarios-the former focuses on the trials and travails
      of love, whereas the latter deals with power struggles.
      The third prototype, dubbed "sacrificial" by Hogan,
      focuses on agrarian plenty versus famine as well as on
      societal redemption. These themes appear over and over
      again as humans create narrative records of their most
      basic needs: food, reproduction and social status.

      Happily Ever After The power of stories does not stop
      with their ability to reveal the workings of our minds.
      Narrative is also a potent persuasive tool, according to
      Hogan and other researchers, and it has the ability to
      shape beliefs and change minds.

      Advertisers have long taken advantage of narrative
      persuasiveness by sprinkling likable characters or funny
      stories into their commercials. A 2007 study by
      marketing researcher Jennifer Edson Escalas of
      Vanderbilt University found that a test audience
      responded more positively to advertisements in narrative
      form as compared with straightforward ads that
      encouraged viewers to think about the arguments for a
      product. Similarly, Green co-authored a 2006 study that
      showed that labeling information as "fact" increased
      critical analysis, whereas labeling information as
      "fiction" had the opposite effect. Studies such as these
      suggest people accept ideas more readily when their
      minds are in story mode as opposed to when they are in
      an analytical mind-set.

      Works of fiction may even have unexpected real-world
      effects on people's choices. Merlot was one of the most
      popular red wines among Americans until the 2005 film
      Sideways depicted actor Paul Giamatti as an ornery wine
      lover who snubbed it as a common, inferior wine.
      Winemakers saw a noticeable drop in sales of the red
      wine that year, particularly after Sideways garnered
      national attention through several Oscar nominations.

      As researchers continue to investigate storytelling's
      power and pervasiveness, they are also looking for ways
      to harness that power. Some such as Green are studying
      how stories can have applications in promoting positive
      health messages. "A lot of problems are behaviorally
      based," Green says, pointing to research documenting the
      influence of Hollywood films on smoking habits among
      teens. And Mar and Oatley want to further examine how
      stories can enhance social skills by acting as
      simulators for the brain, which may turn the idea of the
      socially crippled bookworm on its head.

      One thing is clear-although research on stories has only
      just begun, it has already turned up a wealth of
      information about the social roots of the human mind-
      and, in science, that's a happy ending.

      Note: This story was originally printed with the title,
      "The Secrets of Storytelling".

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