Thursday, January 2, 2014

Activating Our Brains Through Stories

"The great religions are all metaphor. We appreciate things like Daniel and the lion’s den, and the Tower of Babel. People remember these metaphors because they are so vivid you can’t get free of them." - Ray Bradbury.

I never liked school because it was boring. I daydreamed a lot, to the point these days I would be diagnosed with ADD. That daydreaming, I realized years later, was my way of telling stories to myself.

I don't even remember what stories I told myself. Hero on a Quest, I'd guess. You know, like Luke Skywalker. Feeling some power and control, even if in my own imagination. Working through things, as Bruno Bettelheim suggested in his Uses of Enchantment. (And just how enchanting is school?)

We are made to learn through stories. That's what was done in the past - stories. Myth, "fairy tales," the Bible. All stories.

I once had a woman call me "Storyteller," although mine often tend to be short jokes ("I want to go the way my father did - peacefully, in his sleep, and not screaming in terror like his passengers.")

We are not made to sit in chairs in ranks and rolls and memorize and regurgitate random facts which aren't even connected to each other. We're made to listen to stories - why else are TV and movies and Stephen King and Tom Clancy so popular? And music? Paintings? Video games? They tell stories.

As far as I'm concerned, story-telling is a science. An art, too, because some people aren't good story-tellers because they have no talent at it.

It's turns out our brains become more active when we tell or hear stories. Don't you feel more active and engaged when listening to or seeing a story? More active than sitting in a classroom listening to dry-as-dust "facts"?

When you listen to a recitation of facts, only a few parts of your brain are activated. When you listen to a story, almost the whole brain is activated. So when you're sitting in regular classes, you're only using part of your brain. Might not that become permanent after a while? And other parts not used much might...atrophy?

This empathy, these resonance, might have to do with the mirror neurons in our brains - and that makes me wonder about lopsidedness and lack of empathy among those who only use essentially one part of their brains, say, "brilliant" economists who seem to be almost utterly clueless about the massively destructive effects of their policies when their theories become reality.

"When we tell stories to others that have really helped us shape our thinking and way of life, we can have the same effect on them too. The brains of the person telling a story and listening to it can synchronize," says Uri Hasson from Princeton.

"When the woman spoke English, the volunteers understood her story, and their brains synchronized. When she had activity in her insula, an emotional brain region, the listeners did too. When her frontal cortex lit up, so did theirs. By simply telling a story, the woman could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners' brains."

Hasson also said a story "is the only way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own idea and experience."

In other words, anything you've experienced, you can get others to experience the same. Through stories.

Of course the next step is to wonder why stories - which both entertain and educate - have been around for tens of thousands of years and are not so much used in education anymore?

Actually, they are, but the stories told are generally ones to make the kids feel bad, because they're ones that tell them they are bad people, whose ancestors have done bad things, in fact are responsible for all the problems in the world. Those aren't good stories. They're traumatizing propaganda.

Those are not the kinds of stories I mean. You can get a Ph.D. and not have the slightest clue about the Bible, or Greek and Roman myths (or any kinds of myths), or fairy tales, or fables. Those are the kind I mean. Stories from a few thousand years ago, that are the basis of our culture.

I sometimes wonder if this is some kind of conspiracy. Some think it is. Whatever it is, it's not good for your brain. Which means, in the long run, society.

"Fairytales don't tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairytales tell children that dragons can be killed" - G.K. Chesterton

"The storyteller said, 'It's stories all the way down.'" - Alexei Panshin

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