Natural-Born Storytellers

We all tell stories.  We can’t seem to help it.  We are known in some circles as the ‘storytelling animal’.  We tell them around water coolers, over dinner tables, in coffee shops and we read stories in newspapers, magazines and in books.  I wonder if its curiosity which makes us do this or is it a way for us to get our big brains around what our senses are telling us?

In our minds, our own lives are stories. Narrative therapy would have it that our identities are shaped by the stories we tell of our own lives.   Neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio, talks of story as integral to consciousness, a kind of wordless narrative which connects us to autobiographical memory and to ourselves. According to cognitive neuroscientist, Michael Gassaniga, its all about coherence.  In the early part of his career, he worked with patients who had a disconnect between the left and right hemispheres of the brain.  This gave Gassaniga and his fellow scientists the ability to look at the hemispheres in isolation and what they found was surprising.  When they gave non-verbal instruction to the non-speaking right side of the brain, for example an indication to the patient to raise their hand, a special system in the left brain would want to explain the action after the fact.  Apparently it wasn’t so much about accuracy as it was about coherence.

Creative Commons

Creative Commons

“There’s this little narrator up there which turns it into a story that makes us feel coherent and unified,” said Gazzaniga.  “We called it the interpreter and its a very powerful force in the human condition and its always trying to figure out and seek explanation for our behaviour.” Neuropsychologist and, as it so happens, a popular science author, Paul Broks, explores the fragility of of personal identity in his work.  He said in an interview with Simon Hattenstone from the Guardian, “At one level we’re basically meat and at another level we’re basically fiction – human beings are storytelling machines, and the self is a story, and we tell a story about ourselves.”

2 comments

Michael Pollock

I believe to some degree all recounts are stories even history as it is in the eye of the beholder:) so I guess what I’m trying to say is that stories define us, who we are as a group and an individual. Please comment:)

Gabrielle Blondell

Absolutely, but as research in neuroscience would have it, histories are stories within stories, where the overarching history is agreed upon by many whose identities are indebted to the stories they tell themselves and each other. It’s mind-bending!