To be human is to have a story to tell - Isak Dinesen Why tell stories?


Chua Mui Hoong, Straits Times Life!, 1/1/1999)


Each of us has a story to tell.  But the true artist is one who lives his life as though it were a story, and sees his life as a narrative.  . . .

Look at the infinite story-telling potential in every event. Had a quarrel with your spouse? Turn it, Walter Mitty-style, into a comic event. Humorist James Thurber’s character turned his mundane life into a heroic epic in his imagination.

Jilted in love? Had a fight with your daughter? Distil the emotion from that exhausting encounter, turn it into a work of art – if you are a writer, write a couple of lines . . .  (if) a talker, a little anecdote to share with someone.

Look at events in your life not as though they are random, but as though they are meant and meaningful. Seek order and pattern, create harmony, in things that happen.

Act in a way that will make for harmony. End relationships with a sense of closure.  That urge to make a story out of one’s life is instinctual for many. Think of how you met the love of your life: surely you have turned it into a story you tell each other?

Gone through a painful relationship and . . .  the wound is still gaping? Time alone will not heal it. Only a sense of closure will do it. Do something ritualistic, symbolic of an ending.

The ancient theorists had it right, you see. We need catharsis, to be purged of pity and terror. And few thing do this as well as stories. This is the reason fairy tales, myths and parables are so powerful. Every child knows the terror of some bedtime stories. Every religious leader couches profound truths in simple stories.

Stories. Life is all about them. Imagine, a new year, (1999) a blank canvas, a pristine book, in which to paint, write or imagine all sorts of stories.  

Happy story-telling.

 Our brains become more active when we tell stories

We all enjoy a good story, whether it’s a novel, a movie or simply something one of our friends is telling us about something that happened to them.

But why do we feel so much more engaged when we hear a narrative about events? It’s quite simple.

If we listen to a Powerpoint presentation with bullet points, certain parts in the brain get activated. Scientists call these Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. Powerpoint hits our language processing parts in the brain, where we decode words into meaning. But that’s it - nothing else happens.

When we are told a story though, things change dramatically, according to researchers in Spain. Not only are the language processing parts of our brain activated, but any area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are activated too.

If someone tells us about how delicious certain foods were, our sensory cortex lights up. If it’s about motion, our motor cortex gets active:

“Metaphors like ‘The singer had a velvet voice’ and ‘He had leathery hands’ roused the sensory cortex. . . .  Then the brains of participants were scanned as they read sentences like ‘John grasped the knife’ and ‘Pablo kicked the ball.’  The scans revealed activity in the motor cortex, which coordinates the body’s movements.”

A story can put your whole brain to work. - Leo Widrich

The scientific explanation for the power of story     .  . . and the personal experience of story