Coming Tardily to the Scientific American Storytelling Article

While the goal of bloggers is often to virally spread breaking news, I find myself resisting blogging about the most current happenings in the storytelling world because, for better or worse, I dislike blogging about what everyone else is blogging about (such as the YouTube videos of Ira Glass on storytelling that I’ve seen quoted in a billion blogs). Jeremy Hsu’s August article about storytelling in Scientific American Mind is one of those pieces that every blogger who has anything to do with storytelling has written about.

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My style is to wait till the viral wave subsides before blogging.

Here are some (many!) bullet points representing what I found most interesting in the Scientific American article (all of these represent quotes or paraphrases of Jeremy Hsu’s writing):

  • 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.
  • Storytelling is one of the few human traits that are truly universal across culture and through all of known history. People in societies of all types weave narratives… 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.
  • A definition of storytelling 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.”
  • People know [storytelling] when they feel it. Whether fiction or nonfiction, a narrative engages its audience through psychological realism–recognizable emotions and believable interactions among characters.
  • Immersion [in stories] is a state psychologists call ‘narrative transport.’
  • [Through story] … 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.
  • 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.
  • … Steven Pinker, a Harvard University evolutionary psychologist, in the April 2007 issue of Philosophy and Literature… posit[s] 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.
  • … people spend most of their conversations telling personal stories and gossiping.
  • 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.
  • … 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.
  • Preliminary research by Oatley and Mar suggests that stories may act as ‘flight simulators’ for social life.
  • … 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.
  • … depictions of romantic love in folktales [have been found] scattered across space and time.
  • “literary Darwinists,” are scholars “”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 biology.
  • Some scholars note that stories “reveal a persistent mind-set regarding gender roles… overwhelmingly similar gender depictions emphasizing strong male protagonists and female beauty.
  • ‘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.”
  • 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…
  • Narrative is also a potent persuasive tool, according to Hogan and other researchers, and it has the ability to shape beliefs and change minds.
  • 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.
  • … stories can have applications in promoting positive health messages. [See this recent entry on preventing a flu pandemic through story.]