Secrets of storytelling

By John Murphy

Posted 9/22/08 at 4:30 AM


Having just read a collection of masterful short-stories by Tobias Wolff, the issue of what makes storytelling such an intrinsic, necessary part of the human condition has been at the forefront of my mind. An article in the most recent issue of Scientific American approaches this age-old question from a left-brained perspective:
“Popular tales do far more than entertain. 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 decisions?”

Storytelling is a universal impulse, and the best stories from various cultures are able to transcend boundaries of geography and time: think of Homer, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky. So what essential function does storytelling serve? Research suggests that those who feel ‘transported’ by a story perform better on empathy tests—the ability to ‘walk a mile in another’s shoes,’ as the saying goes. Certainly the fact that Christ chose to impart moral lessons in the form of parables proves the redemptive nature of storytelling: sympathy is the beginning of understanding and a path to love. 

In scientific terms, this could be more prosaically translated: “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.”