August 21, 2008

The secrets of storytelling



Check out this article "The Secrets of Storytelling: Why We Love a Good Yarn," from Scientific American. It's about why we enjoy listening to and telling stories and what those stories reveal about our brains and our social, emotional and cognitive development.

"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?

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."

There are so many fascinating concepts in the article, like this one:

"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...

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."

In a presentation setting, stories help the audience make the connection between your topic and their lives. Stories create mental pictures for the audience. Stories help the audience relate to you as a person. Stories are ten times more interesting than an enumeration of facts and figures.

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