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Author Topic: Why Do People Have To Tell Stories?  (Read 13232 times)
Lykaios
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« Reply #15: February 10, 2009, 12:08:34 am »

If you think about it, we could exist perfectly well without stories; we could still eat, sleep, have sex, even if we never heard or told another story. Sure, stories serve various social functions—one function of myth, for example, is to give social cohesion to a group, I believe—but then a wolf pack reinforces its social cohesion by howling at night, no stories required. So why do humans do it with story? Why do we do so many things—entertainment, education, and on and on—through story?

I can't remember where I read it, but somewhere in an older book on animal intelligence the author made a statement to the effect of: "Humans have the unique ability to learn not only from direct experience, but from observing the experience of others."

Now, the validity of that statement in regards to our 'uniqueness' aside, it is interesting to note that we do, in fact, learn from one another's experiences as much as we learn from direct experience. I've always seen stories as a way of communicating experience and knowledge from one human being to another. As a teacher, I use all kinds of stories to teach all kinds of things. I especially use stories to teach the kids about things they can't directly experience. For example, reading "Number the Stars" in fifth grade, to give them a kid's eye view of the holocaust. It's very watered down with no graphic violence or hint as to the true scope of what happened, but enough to communicate the horror of people being singled out for an arbitrary attribute and taken away from their friends and family never to return, which is still pretty heavy stuff. (Sadly though, most of my kids can identify because every now and then Immigration comes around, camps out in front of grocery stores and public parks, and round up a fourth of our families for deportation.) 

I also know from teaching that stories help make information more memorable. If you want someone to learn something, a story or song will go a lot further than flash cards. I would imagine that in the days before written word, when everything that was to survive beyond the experience of a single generation had to be memorized by new generations, stories were a good way to make that information easier to hold on to and recall. Rhyme is useful to that end as well. Some research shows that Kindergarteners remember rhyming stories better than non-rhyming ones.
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« Reply #16: February 10, 2009, 10:10:36 am »

The phrase that comes to my mind isn't "abstraction-specializing", it's "pattern-seeking".

That's not mutually-exclusive, though; I think there's a very definite relationship at the least, and they could be seen as two ways to say the same thing (what exactly is it that we abstract?  Patterns!).  But I thought I'd throw it in to the mix just to see if it was useful.

I definitely agree there's a relationship between abstract thinking and discerning patterns; I'm not sure they're the same thing. The thing I find interesting is that one can discern patterns in the world around us yet talk about those patterns without resorting to storytelling...and yet, so often, we do just that.

Presenting any set of facts, observations, or ideas as a story seems to make it more compelling for us humans, reaching us on a level mere recitation can't rival. That suggests to me that there's something deep in human psychology that predisposes us to storytelling/story appreciation.

Going back a fair way, I remember a lecture one of my professors gave in which he said something to the effect that humans use stories because we have an understanding of the passage of time.


That's a fascinating conjecture; I'll have to mull that one over some more.

Why humans, in general, tell stories, is far beyond my scope of interest and knowledge, and can only ever really be spoken of in the vaguest of terms, or in poetry.

Oh, drat. I was hoping you esp. would have some insight on this, Catja. Anyway, I *hope* we humans can delve at least a bit closer to the reason behind our need for stories...though you may ultimately prove correct, and it may be left to the realm of poetry.

There are absolutely thousands of reasons to tell stories, and I'm much more sympathetic to starting with the specifics, and then going from there, rather than starting with broad generalizations. 

Are there any general observations you would make regarding the human need for storytelling, based on your experience with specific storytellers, what stories they tell, and when and where they do it?
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« Reply #17: February 10, 2009, 10:17:21 am »

I just wanted to say this: story, and the act of telling stories, is the basis of my world-view.

So, thanks for starting this thread, as it's one that's really close to my heart.  Smiley

Yeah, pretty much the same here. Story and storytelling is central to how I understand the world, both on conscious and on unconscious levels.
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« Reply #18: February 10, 2009, 10:23:29 am »

I also know from teaching that stories help make information more memorable. If you want someone to learn something, a story or song will go a lot further than flash cards. I would imagine that in the days before written word, when everything that was to survive beyond the experience of a single generation had to be memorized by new generations, stories were a good way to make that information easier to hold on to and recall.

Lots of stuff to ponder in your post, but this in particular made me sit up and pay attention. The fact that stories aid memorization is a piece of the puzzle I hadn't considered.
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« Reply #19: February 10, 2009, 01:39:06 pm »

"Humans have the unique ability to learn not only from direct experience, but from observing the experience of others."

I also know from teaching that stories help make information more memorable. If you want someone to learn something, a story or song will go a lot further than flash cards. I would imagine that in the days before written word, when everything that was to survive beyond the experience of a single generation had to be memorized by new generations, stories were a good way to make that information easier to hold on to and recall. Rhyme is useful to that end as well. Some research shows that Kindergarteners remember rhyming stories better than non-rhyming ones.

I wonder if stories somehow translate ideas into indirect experience in terms of the way they're understood by the listener.

The "Boy Who Cried Wolf" might be a decent (simple)example.  If someone tells me "Don't tell lies to get attention or people might not believe you anymore and you could get into bad situations because of it" my reaction is going to be "Okay. Sure. That's interesting."  I'd probably dismiss it as someone's prattling advice and forget about it. 

When I hear the story, though, my brain processes it as though the events in the story were happening to me  and I then draw my own conclusions from it.  It's a way of learning from experience without the experience.  The easy "hard way" of learning.  Wink

Betty  Smiley
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« Reply #20: February 10, 2009, 08:36:43 pm »

Because women don't tell stories, or make music, or create art; their role is to gaze adoringly at the male creators and reward them with nookie.   

Most invocations of evolution beyond strict biology were strongly rooted in a desire to give the "100% Mother Nature Approved" stamp to late 19th century hierarchies of gender, race, and class -- and for those who continue to make those invocations, 19th c. gender assumptions, especially, are still clinging on.   


Whether women do or don't tell stories, or make music, or create art, is not relevant to my statement. I can understand your opinion, given the taint of 19th century junk science.

The inspiration for my comments can be found in this article from a recent issue of The Economist:

http://www.economist.com/printedition/displayStory.cfm?Story_ID=12795510
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« Reply #21: February 11, 2009, 12:32:51 am »

Presenting any set of facts, observations, or ideas as a story seems to make it more compelling for us humans, reaching us on a level mere recitation can't rival. That suggests to me that there's something deep in human psychology that predisposes us to storytelling/story appreciation.

I definitely agree that stories serve many uses.  The idea that stories aid memorization is particularly evident in Celtic cultures that didn't write things down.  They passed information down through the generations by using oral storytelling.

But there's also the element of fun.  Stories are fun.  That's why kids want to hear them at bedtime.  And that's why people tell ghost stories around the campfire.   Cool
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« Reply #22: February 11, 2009, 10:22:09 am »

When I hear the story, though, my brain processes it as though the events in the story were happening to me 

Betty, you may have handed me the key here. Try this on for size:

Storytelling is possible among us humans because we have language, a direct consequence of our ability to think abstractly;

Storytelling is compelling to us humans because we have empathy, and therefore can put ourselves in the place of the characters of the story. This empathy is a consequence of our nature as social animals; we evolved to live in groups, and our range of emotions--plus the ability to recognize them in others--is essential to that strategy for living.

(Note how we so often classify stories according to the primary emotion evoked: comedy, tragedy, horror, etc.)

Because stories can tap so effectively into the full range of human emotions, they are incredibly versatile and end up seving myriad functions, from entertainment to education to social cohesion.

Storytelling became central in our early societies because they aided memory at a time when transmission of information was oral. Stories have therefore lost some of that primacy in today's world.

Other factors we've discussed in this thread--human awareness of time, etc.--probably play a part as well, but the above may be the framework for understanding what makes storytelling such a universal and essential human activity.
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« Reply #23: February 11, 2009, 05:58:37 pm »

Storytelling is compelling to us humans because we have empathy, and therefore can put ourselves in the place of the characters of the story. This empathy is a consequence of our nature as social animals; we evolved to live in groups, and our range of emotions--plus the ability to recognize them in others--is essential to that strategy for living.

Well stated -- and makes a lot of sense.
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« Reply #24: February 12, 2009, 03:14:11 am »

Betty, you may have handed me the key here. Try this on for size:

Storytelling is possible among us humans because we have language, a direct consequence of our ability to think abstractly;


Throwing an idea out there; as part of the abstract thinking, dreams often seem to be like stories, telling a tale. Could that have influenced the desire to make up stories?

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« Reply #25: February 24, 2009, 11:38:30 pm »


If you think about it, we could exist perfectly well without stories; we could still eat, sleep, have sex, even if we never heard or told another story. Sure, stories serve various social functions—one function of myth, for example, is to give social cohesion to a group, I believe—but then a wolf pack reinforces its social cohesion by howling at night, no stories required. So why do humans do it with story? Why do we do so many things—entertainment, education, and on and on—through story?

Just to add to the discussion, there is a tribe in South America, the Pirahã that do not tell stories, not in the way that we do. They have no creation myth (because everything always was and always is - there is only the present) - in fact no mythology of any kind at all, no history, no real words for time, and no art. There was an article about them in the New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/04/16/070416fa_fact_colapinto 

Here is a link to the book about them by the linguist that discovered them: http://www.powells.com/cgi-bin/biblio?inkey=91-9780307377791-0 

They do appear to be unique among cultures, but still an interesting anomaly that leads one to question what we consider to be "universal" and "part of the human experience."
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« Reply #26: February 25, 2009, 07:52:15 am »

Just to add to the discussion, there is a tribe in South America, the Pirahã that do not tell stories, not in the way that we do. They have no creation myth (because everything always was and always is - there is only the present) - in fact no mythology of any kind at all, no history, no real words for time, and no art.

That's utterly startling...and intriguing. I'll have to read those links.
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« Reply #27: February 25, 2009, 03:54:34 pm »


I find it very intriguing. However, the article really didn't do it for me. I have come to about two thirds, but it doesn't give enough examples to really grasp a few glimmers of how the language or the cultural aspects are working. Even though I have some linguistic background (and have spent some time parsing Chomskian tree structures) I find the article very difficult to read or grasp.

(However, I do fully agree with Everett that Chomsky isn't the theory that explains everything concerning linguistics. And I find it amazing, every time I read about it, how uncritically the theory is accepted among scientists, who really ought to know better.)

Slightly off-topic to the 'why people tell stories'  but interesting all the same.
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« Reply #28: March 08, 2009, 01:33:24 am »

I’m not an anthropologist, and I haven’t read widely on the subject…but there seems to be a fundamental human need to have stories. This is in every culture worldwide, ranging from myths (deeply meaningful religious stories about Life, the Universe, and Everything) to soap operas (somewhat less meaningful stories about life, sex, and everything) to comic strips (ditto).

Why?

If you think about it, we could exist perfectly well without stories; we could still eat, sleep, have sex, even if we never heard or told another story. Sure, stories serve various social functions—one function of myth, for example, is to give social cohesion to a group, I believe—but then a wolf pack reinforces its social cohesion by howling at night, no stories required. So why do humans do it with story? Why do we do so many things—entertainment, education, and on and on—through story?

We even tend to edit our experiences selectively—on an individual level, our memories, and collectively, our history—so that they make a tidy story.

Why not accept the chaotic mess as it is, rather than try to impose some narrative order?

If we were ever to meet intelligent aliens, do you think they’d also tell stories? For the same reasons we do?

**************

Attempting to answer my own question: I think it might have to do with the human ability to think abstractly. One of the special features that sets our species apart from the others here on Earth is our ability to make a particular sound or draw a bunch of lines and attach specific meaning to it; this gives rise to language, to math, to symbolism…

Maybe this same feature of our brains gives rise to the need for story as well. If you think of story as human experiences abstracted, it makes sense that our abstraction-specializing brains would crave it.

Or am I wandering completely into the speculative ether here?


Funny, I was just thinking about something similar today, and I thought up an explanation which might pertain to your question as well.

I believe that there are only a few elements of humanity which separate us from primitive animals.  These few qualities are abilities which have, I think, brought us to the place in which we find ourselves now.  Two of the most important traits we've developed are the ability to remember, and the ability to create(or, in this case, embellish).

Memory.  Long- and short- term memory are not always necessary for survival purposes.  Look at the jellyfish... no brain...  Bad example, I know, just simple illustration.  Anyway, it leads to the creativity thing, so bear with me.  Without the ability to remember and memorize things, we would have no basis upon which to embellish upon the natural formations, shelters, etc., around us, and we wouldn't have been able to learn from Nature how to adapt and be creative, because learning requires memory.  Then we moved on from figuring out how to optimize the protective abilities of our family's cave to recalling the day's events and drawing them on the wall in berry mush pigment.  Look mom, cave art... the first examples we have of recorded storytelling.

When we realized we could create things, we got "smart". (I use the term loosely, of course, because look at what we're doing to ourselves, our planet, etc., with our technological "advances" and whatnot.)   Anyway, since we have the ability to create, we use our creativity as a tool for personal gain. 
Whatever we choose to use it for, it brings us a benefit of sorts.  Keeping ourselves busy, earning money or fame(as in books or movies), to create social order(...Holy F---in' Bible, anyone? o.O), etc.  Storytelling is just another thing we as humans do that differentiates us from the animals.  Yet as simple an act as it is to tell a story, religious texts are a perfect example of the power of legend, lore, myth, etc.  Just stories, nothing more, with "moral fiber" as the only conceivable benefit, controlling the actions and lives of billions of people around the world.  One hex per subsequent holy-roller upon those greedy, power hungry authors. 

Kinda like how certain popular book companies capitalize on iggy noobs and fluff bunnies with their fairy-tale(or fairy-fart)-Wicca & completely inaccurate "New Age" books... 

HAHAHA! TAKE THAT, LLEWELLYN PUBLICATIONS!!!
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« Reply #29: April 30, 2009, 08:19:12 pm »

I was told - and not by a human being  Cheesy - that: stories are important. People will listen to them and understand things they wouldn't get otherwise. (rough translation of what was said.)

(Btw I'm not so sure animals don't have stories Wink)

Stories touch us in the core if they fulfill some criteria.
That is the reason something like Star Wars or Buffy worked so good - let alone Lord of the Rings which was wrote in the style of great myths on purpose.

It's the essentials in those stories and - funny enough, just wrote about it somewhere else - I believe the really important stories have not changed since the first campfire. They only change the characters and the settings.

So yes - we could exist without stories. Just like we could exist without religion, art, philosophy and so on.
But mind 'to exist' does not equal 'to live' Smiley
I closely agree with this. As an English education major, this topic is something I ponder a lot. Why should we read literature? And more recently, for a final for a class, I had to ponder "Why do we have poetry? Why NOT prose? Why is normal language insufficient for expressing our deepest thoughts?"

I think people tell stories because we have the unique capacity for spoken (and written) language. We feel the *need* to express and explore ourselves through the verbal medium in a way that animals do not. Humans are hard-wired to learn language - the way in which toddlers learn language is mind-boggling! You'll probably never do anything in your life as complicated as learning a language. Language is what makes so much of our culture and way of life possible. (Along with the opposable thumb and being bipedal. Wink )

Telling stories provides information, entertainment, and a "way in" to the larger implications of life and the universe. Cheesy Makes me giddy!
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