Why tell stories? This is the basic question to ask at the beginning of a book about storytelling. Stories are what we do as humans to make sense of the world. We are perpetual storytellers, reviewing events in the form of re-lived scenes, nuggets of context and character, actions that lead to realizations. But the brain you are using to listen to me talk about stories and storytelling is very different than the brain you have when you hear me tell a story.
Here is a story.
When I am explaining an idea to you, I want to be clearly understood. I want very little distance between my intended meaning and your perceived meaning. To accomplish this, I need to be precise. I need the ideas to be substantiated by argument, where each example, each concept, builds upon the other, toward a coherent conclusion.
But when I tell a story, reflecting on a moment in time, and reflecting on that reflection, I am not so concerned about interpretation. Perhaps I imagine my meaning is evident. While I might hope you would read something similar to me about what this story tells about the source of my political views, I am not trying to convince you to share them. I want you to relate my experience to your own.
Much more important is that my feeling is evident. Unconsciously, I am sure I tell stories that I hope would endear me to you, or at least create an emotional connection between us. An intimacy. When I am in conversation and drop into telling a story, something changes about my choice of words, about the way I describe interactions, impersonating the characters, pulling out the details, feeling, even as I recite my memories, how the actual events worked upon my psyche, how they changed me.
The Biology of Story
(Carr 2010: 191)
My exploration of story has always coincided with an interest in cognition and memory. Over these many years I have found myself lost in some popular press discussion of the advancements in neuroscience, and the evolving discipline of neuropsychology, specifically the biology of our sense of self and the role biochemistry has in emotion and identity.
We have many ways of thinking of story from a biological sense. The hunter/hunting party returns from the hunt and explains how to catch the next big meal. The mother shares her birthing story with a teenage daughter, and explains the process by which she kept the child alive through a long, cold winter. Story becomes a teaching tool for survival. And one could argue that the human race stills uses story for this reason, to put the stakes of survival, and the emotions that come with it, as the basis for attentive consideration of a remembered event. Many of the stories we have in our work in public health are life-and-death cautionary tales about the results of our own unfortunate or disastrous choices, or those by a person exerting power over us and with those for whom we have primary relationship and attachment.
We now know the general pattern of brain activity that causes short-term memory to become long-term memory. We know that sensory experience is mostly forgotten, moments after we hear, see, touch, smell, taste it. Based on the research of psychologist Brenda Milner, we learned that to remember we move sensory information from a slower part of our brain that senses back to the fast-working hippocampus. The hippocampus is integral to a complex process of consolidation of the memory over days, weeks, and years. The process, as far as we can tell, requires rehearsal, reviewing the experience again and again in our minds. The new neural pathway that is forged in the cortex through this process becomes long-term memory. The more we rehearse, in our conscious mind, but also in our dreams and subconscious, the deeper the pathway, the more the memory is sustained (Kandel 2006: 129–33).
We all think of this as the essence of learning; you repeat something again and again until it sticks. This works for physical activities (playing an instrument, using a fine tool), as well as for mental activity (doing multiplication tables or following directions). Practice makes perfect. Repetition creates retention.
As it turns out, if we have an affective relationship to the sensory information – if that information is connected to the part of our brains that processes our emotions – then the pathways become even stronger. The memories associated with our most important life lessons are inevitably those with strong emotional encoding at the moment, as in traumas or events involving those close to us. When we describe these events, and their meaning to our lives, we inevitably drop out of argumentation and into story. Story in this sense works biologically to ensure the total recall of those events we have ingrained as being of greatest emotional importance to us.
In retelling, we set the scene of the learning, not only to help the listener have a rich context for the meaning, but also to simply return us to the sensory and emotive environment that burned the memory into our neurons. As we remember the scene, we actually are linking back to the sparking neural pathways that were formed in the strong associative memory (Rappoport 2006, Siegel 2012).
The Hollywood Century and the American Myth
Life and death, moments of clarity, decisive events that change us; these are not just the subjects of life recalled, these are the essence of our oral traditions of myth and folktale, our literatures, and, in the last century, the immersive media of the screen and recorded sound.
We first know story through our experience, but the stories told to us become part of our tribe, our community, our culture, and are formed into myth and archetype. We see our own lives in the plots of the journey, the romance, the mystery. We see our identity and those of our most important relationships in the characters of the hero, the lover, the seeker, the wizard, the sidekick, the beast. We know them as they reappear in our sacred texts: the Bible, the Quran, the life of Siddhartha the Buddha, Anansi the Spider, as well as our epic and children’s narratives, The Odyssey, King Arthur, and the Brothers Grimm. We know how they work in westerns, sci-fi, detective stories, and romantic comedies.
Myths have always served our coming to terms with developmental processes – our place in the world, selfhood, partnering, parenting, death – the stories that held us, that spoke to us, that gave us patterns we could be assured of in considering the choices and changes that are part of our lives. But in the recent centuries, the myths that bound us as tribes, as cultures, that gave us the particulars of our definitions of good and evil, speak to the process of dissembling identity as we left the farm for the factory.
Much of twentieth-century literary and media history was to assist in the development of how societies and individuals could process their vast exit from agricultural life to the city. As human experience changed, we searched the old myths for patterns to help explain our feelings of dislocation. We also created new myths and archetypes. The machinery of mass media was to put the project through all genres of storytelling. With Disney and others, they borrowed directly from the folktale to contemporize children’s stories to the experience of modern existential alienation, showing us hipster heroes and wise-cracking damsels battling corporatist monsters and dictatorial tyrants. The western showed us how to bring frontier ethics into our chaotic urban experience, mapping the pastoral ideal of self-sufficiency and familial integrity onto a suburban ideal of the single-family dwelling, and the sense of embattlement with the savage and wilderness with the relationship between civilized suburb and lawless inner city. Science fiction, for instance, provided a way to take our fear of sweeping technological innovation and overlay the mythos of the hero’s confrontation with the evil genie let loose upon the world. Crime and mystery narratives gave us ways to examine the psychology of social dysfunction through a mythic presentation of the detective as shaman. And romantic narratives helped us to explore difference, juxtaposing characters of different class, situation, and culture, negotiating the chaos of prejudice and simmering fears of the other that exploded as cities crammed a multiplicity of tribes into close proximity.
Implicit in these mass-media mythologies was a sense of both nation-state signification and a new universalism; the American century could also be defined as the Hollywood century. The U.S. imperial mythic landscape also served American exceptionalism in the battle with the totalitarian Other. Our stories were more than reassuring forms of entertainment assisting with our social transitions; they brought with them the values of democracy and a particular sort of individualism that was perceived as the inevitable ethos of all the planet’s peoples and societies. As presented by our dominant medias, the American ideal continues to be an unquestioned pinnacle of human progress.
And, as has been true with all dominant ideologies inside a culture, we took on the characters as our own. Rather than the collectivist ethos, we saw ourselves as individually responsible for our fate. We saw the signifying success of our own specialized career, our own successful family, single-family house, two cars, and endless stuff to continually validate our status. And, as an empire, we exported (and continue to export) those expectations as far as we could/can reach.
Our Ordinary Stories Become Extraordinary Journeys
Inherent in the individualism of citizen democracy is that every story matters. In practice, twentieth-century media culture also can be seen as the triumph of the ordinary person. Traditional cultures took individual experience and mythologized the hunt into the hero’s journey or the animist characterizations of mysterious forces in nature. Feudal societies privileged the lives of kings, gods and saints, magi and warrior-heroes. Industrial culture gave us the lifestyles of the rich and famous. But the forces of industrial class struggle and the democratic impulses it created stressed that even the most plebeian character had a powerful story to tell. Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and their contemporaries, created stories about the people, in which the people became their own heroes. The newly literate laboring classes could see themselves in the stories, and a tradition of working-class storytelling has continued through their literary progeny. In Western industrial culture these traditions emerged. At the same time, a feminist literary tradition, a tradition of representations of the racially oppressed, stories of outcasts and marginalized peoples, of the silenced and invisible, of all kinds, emerged as well. By the 1920s and 1930s these stories became increasingly written not as outsider celebrations of the ordinary by authors of the “Other” but by working-class men and women, storytellers who lived racial, class, and gender oppression themselves.
People had the idea that their stories mattered, but, in form and attitude, the narration of these lives did not necessarily take on self-mythology. The natural orientation of many, if not all, of these stories was heroic melodrama. (In those countries where the success of social revolutions created an “official” social realist proletarian culture, simplistically drawn melodrama were all the stories were allowed to become.) The storylines were simple: an evil oppressor tortures the masses; heroes rise from the mass and, through a mix of individual smarts and their leadership of collective action, the oppressed conquer the oppressor. Transformation occurs, but not the kind of transformation that reveals new insight, or advances depth of understanding. The power to take the actual life and make a document for personal, and community, ongoing transformation needed another impetus.
Precisely as the industrial landscape created a proletarian literature, psychology and the other social sciences gave us concepts about the relationship between the individual and society that suggested the role of myth, and therefore story, was hard-wired to our subconscious.
Sigmund Freud and the large cohort of specialists delving into the science of our minds and behavior learned very quickly that what we thought we knew about ourselves wasn’t the half of it. Maybe not even the tenth of it. Our conscious minds are in fact slaves to our subconscious in ways we could not, and still cannot, easily grasp. It is not easy to understate what this insight did to Western storytelling. Just as our instinct for fairness and social reform was telling us to value individual stories, we also learned that as individuals we were essentially puppets of our developmental bodies. Our mammalian urges for safety, food, and reproduction were driving as much of our decision-making as were the cognitive faculties we associated with our rationality.
Perhaps this is the point. Freud’s insights fit nicely into the collapse of religious-based dogma about human “uniqueness” in the face of the Darwinian certainty of our mammalian ancestry. Darwin made Freud possible. What makes a story a contemporary story is that it substitutes God-given fate for subconscious personal history. There not because of God’s will, but because of good (or bad) will generated by context, parenting, and the luck of biochemistry.
In literature, almost all the Western canon was informed by psychology. Having been trained in theatrical literature, as much as I focused on the social playwrights of the twentieth century – Bernard Shaw, Bertolt Brecht, Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller – I was also privileged to study the psychological realism of August Strindberg, Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov, Eugene O’Neill, and Tennessee Williams. All these authors inhabited their stages with characters driven by demons within the family history. And, while they were critiqued by the social realists as hopelessly individualist, it was clear by the postwar period that even proletarian characters needed complex personal lives from which we could read their journey as against the “system” as well as against their demons. Think of Marlon Brando’s character in On the Waterfront.
Freud’s colleague Carl Jung, and then later contributors like Joseph Campbell and others, helped create a sense that we all had a “personal mythology.” We learned we have a hero’s journey myth in all our lives. A journey that allows us to confront demons, come to terms with ego, and place ourselves as victors over our demons and deficits.
This concept of personal mythology became more frequently used in the 1960s and 1970s to suggest a framework for psyc...