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Storytelling as a Superpower

Storytelling is perhaps one of our most primitive and effective ways of making sense of the world. The universality of the storytelling experience makes it unique, and the attractiveness of a good story transcends time and culture. As a species, we unfailingly gravitate towards stories. News articles, movies, jokes, books, songs, and arguably most forms of art tell a story.

1. What Makes a Story? The Elements of Storytelling

The shortest story ever written was just six words long – “For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” – attributed to novelist and Nobel laureate Earnest Hemingway.

Our brain is wired to analyse the meaningful connections between the words of the advertisement and internally narrate the underlying story to us. The genius of storytelling lies in the ability of stories to engage both the narrator and the reader or listener in giving meaning to the written or spoken words. An article from the Arts and Social Sciences Journal explains the difference between our intellectual abilities and that of various animals brilliantly:

“The human brain, above all others, has the most developed ability to extrapolate meaning and implications from stories”.[1]

Before we dive deeper into how our human nature predisposes us to falling in love with stories and interacting with them, here’s a quick overview of the elements that typically make up a story.

  1. Narrative:

Most researchers and professionals agree that, to some degree, storytelling is synonymous with narration. It’s safe to consider narration the most fundamental instrument of storytelling because it truly shapes the way any story is told.

As any literature major would tell you, it’s important to make the distinction between the author of a story and the narrator. Take the movie Titanic for example, while James Cameron wrote the screenplay, it is Rose who is narrating the story throughout the film.

The narrative techniques that a storyteller can employ are endless. Narrators can adopt the first- or third-person point of view depending on whether the narrator is part of the story or not. Some narrators are omniscient and have insight into other characters’ thoughts and feelings, while others do not. Dialogues can also be a way in which authors reveal events, thoughts, and interactions within a story.

Not all stories are told in a linear manner. Sometimes, a story might be told in retrospect, and sometimes the events and occurrences in a story might be taking place as they are being told while occasionally containing flashbacks. Other times, an author, writer, developer, artist, or filmmaker might decide to tell different stories in parallel or shuffle the timeline to create a more enticing or immersive story.

  • Characters:

The ability of writers and storytellers to bring characters to life is another reason that we tend to be fascinated with stories. We might identify with these characters; we might be curious about them; we might despise them or be infatuated with them knowing full well that they are the product of someone’s imagination. And yet, storytellers, whoever they may be, keep captivating us with these personas whose growth journey, story, and mishaps we are allowed to witness as the plot unravels.

  • Plot

While the narrative is how a story is told and the characters those who the story is happening to, the plot is the many building blocks that make up a story; the what. Typically, a story can start with an initial situation, then slowly erupt with complications until it reaches a climax, often resolving itself towards the end. However, creative storytelling has put forth much more than this classic approach to developing a story. Many stories now begin in medias res; this means the story starts in the middle of the action, drawing the audience, listeners, or readers in the very moment it opens.

2. Storytelling and Human Intelligence

  1. Logical-Mathematical Intelligence

Though stories are quite entertaining, they are also highly informative and almost always present a learning opportunity. Various studies have successfully proven how storytelling can enhance learning both in children and adults. One such study was conducted to examine the relationship between storytelling and problem-solving through an arithmetic card game presented to 5th graders in Taiwan. The game aims to encourage students to verbalise their thought processes. By doing so, teachers would be able to identify possible misconceptions and reasoning challenges among students.[2] Incorporating storytelling in the classroom is not new, but it is becoming increasingly adopted across different subjects through a multitude of different approaches.

Continue reading this article here.

As the world evolves, and digital skills become more and more essential, educators worldwide are looking for more ways to promote digital skills while harvesting the learning benefits of storytelling. This has created a growing interest in digital storytelling among academics and educators worldwide. A study published in the journal of Contemporary Educational Technology explores “how students in China and Finland can acquire twenty-first-century competencies through digital storytelling and enhance their understanding of math in everyday life while becoming more engaged in learning”.[3] The participating students were 10 and 11 years of age. They were asked to calculate the area of different geometric figures, apply this information to their everyday lives, and create a short video to explain and share their ideas with other students. Students’ and teachers’ impressions were both recorded. Employing a digital storytelling approach yielded a higher level of collaborative learning and promoted a practical knowledge of math. Teachers also noted that their students demonstrated an increase in active knowledge creation, motivation, and engagement. DST also seems to have encouraged “students to apply new technology in their learning”.[4]

To read the full article, click here.

  • Emotional Intelligence – Empathy

Stories also have immense evolutionary value to us. While our five senses allow us to understand more about the physical world around us, storytelling enables us to consider abstract concepts and notions, like human behaviour, philosophy, and so on. A bedtime story can expand the realms of a child’s imagination about different worldly and imaginary things. It can also pave the way to emotional maturity by allowing them to think outside their own viewpoints, naturally overcoming egocentricity by gaining access to the thoughts and feelings of characters that they can identify with.

Unlike animals, we can infer meaning from metaphors. We can translate scenarios into our own lives. We can imagine ourselves out of our familiar comfort zones into a situation where we are genuinely feeling threatened, even in a cozy bed with a novel in hand and a partner snoring nearby. These are the functions of a storytelling brain, which have developed over time, as an evolutionary imperative. [5]

The article from Arts and Social Sciences Journal explains how our brains are equipped with organs that help “store, recall, and interpret situations and stories”. As our left brain or left hippocampus picks up on the smaller, more concrete bits of information related to events – episodic memory, our right hippocampus allows us to consider the larger picture; the setting, themes, and context. It is our right brain that allows us to place ourselves in a particular story, identify with characters, and look out for potential threats. Two other organs that the article explains are also concerned with our perceptions and interpretations of stories are the amygdalae. These organs are responsible for moderating our sense of “ipseity”. This means they determine how and to what extent we are able to place ourselves within a narrative.

[T]he right amygdala gives the reader contextual awareness – if they are reading a thriller, it allows them to think, “I am not at risk. I am reading a novel.” The left amygdala, simultaneously, tells us whether the story has any direct effect on us as individuals, right now – the prosaic reality. It’s the organ that exerts the power of immediacy and imminence.[6]

By waltzing between physical reality and the hypothesized situations we identify with in fiction, we gain invaluable life skills like how to distance ourselves from current happenings or – alternatively, how to place ourselves in other people’s shoes, stories, or scenarios. It is what, according to the article, allows evolution in humans to happen within one lifetime and what saves us from having to physically go through a threatening experience to learn from it. Vicarious learning might just be our very own, human superpower.

Continue reading about our human neurological storytelling abilities here.

More and more, and like so many other aspects of our lives, storytelling is being exported into the digital realm. Interactive games, narratives, and movies are on the rise, and virtual reality technology is plunging us into a plenitude of immersive neurosensory experiences. And while it seems that cognitive significance of storytelling lies in its ability to immerse us in abstract thought just enough to experience things vicariously, but still grant us the ability to distance ourselves enough to ponder, analyse, interpret, retrospect, and reconsider different perspectives, viewpoints, and themes, might virtual realities, and other interactive storytelling technologies rob us of the idleness which enables distant consideration?

Humans place themselves in stories, as both observer and participant, to create a ‘neural balance’ or sweet spot that allows them to be immersed in a story without being entirely threatened by it – and this involvement in story leads to the formation of empathy an empathy that is integral to forging a future humanity. [7]

Might the extensive use of interactive technology in the future tip the balance between participant and observer or would it have the power to reverse years of passive viewing?

Related Content on Zendy Open:

Read more about digital storytelling, virtual, and augmented reality:

  1. Effects of Higher Interactivity on the Interactive Narrative Experience: An experimental study
  2. Storytelling Application Based on Interactive Story Graph Structure (ISGS)
  3. Time Travel to the Past of Bosnia and Herzegovina through Virtual and Augmented Reality

Read more about how storytelling is being used across different industries and disciplines.

  1. From What to Where: A setting-sensitive approach to organizational storytelling
  2. Storytelling and Visualization: An extended survey
  3. Architecture and Narration: The architect as storyteller?
  4. Value creation in projects: Towards a narrative perspective

[1] Hunte B. , Golembiewski, J. Stories Have the Power to Save us: A Neurological Framework for the Imperative to Tell Stories. Arts and Social Sciences Journal. 2014; 5(2): 73, 1

[2] Hu L. , Tseng, Sh. Applying an e-PBL Platform to Develop a Storytelling-Based Arithmetic Card Game. MATEC Web of Conferences. 2016; 44: 1-5

[3] Niemi H. , Niu S. , Vivitsou M. , Li B. Digital Storytelling for Twenty-First-Century Competencies with Math Literacy and Student Engagement in China and Finland. Contemporary Educational Technology. 2018; 9(4): 331-353, (332)

[4] Digital Storytelling, 331-353

[5] Stories Have the Power to Save us, Page 1 of 4

[6] Stories Have the Power to Save us, Page 2 of 4

[7] Stories Have the Power to Save us, page 1 of 4 (Abstract)