This post was originally posted in 2010. I'm revisiting it now to see if I still agree with what I said then.
For many years when I ran Storytelling for Grownups in Medford, MA I would start every session with that question. The answers were as varied as the attendees, including:
- it’s fun
- if I didn’t I would die
- it helps us connect to each other
- it keeps the monsters at bay
- it’s a socially sanctioned way to get the attention we desperately crave
- because I can’t sing.
So why do we tell stories? Not just as storytellers but as human beings? I don’t pretend to know all the answers to this, but I can propose some and I’d love to know what you think. Please add your thoughts in the comments section below.
- Recent research shows that storytelling is hardwired into our brains. We learn more effectively when we hear narrative, rather than just dry facts or are expected to passively take in information. In fact, MRI studies have shown that the parts of our brains that process experience (“this is happening to me”) are activated when we hear narrative, but not when we watch video or read. Cool, huh? This means that we are built to listen to stories. We hear stories because that’s part of what humans do.
- Be retelling our own experiences, whether as personal stories or through the metaphor of folktales, myths or literary tales, we process our experiences into something we can understand more deeply and can share with others without the audience needing to care for us. We tell stories because we have to. It does keep the monsters at bay.
- When we tell stories to audiences that are hardwired to hear us, we are re-enacting something our species has been doing for countless generations. Culture is conveyed through stories. Meaning is more easily described through metaphor and narrative than by exposition. You can certainly describe the events that made you feel sad, your physiological reaction and the sequence of steps you undertook to feel better, or you can tell the story and connect with your audience. Someone will think, “I’ve been there too.” We connect through the storytelling experience because it is a shared, finite, temporary moment in time that captures our attention and pulls at our deepest ancestral memories. It keeps who we are alive, in the dark times and the light.
- Stories convey so much meaning they can do anything we want. When we tell a story and connect effectively with the audience we can make them laugh. Or cry. Or get aroused. Or commit heinous acts. Or lead. Or save the world. Stories are a shortcut to the human heart. We tell stories because we need to connect with one another. We need to be heard. We need to listen.
- And yes, it gives us the attention we crave. It’s a huge amount of fun; come on, who doesn’t enjoy being the center of attention once in awhile? Whether you’re telling to one person or an audience of hundreds (or even thousands) when we tell a story well we connect with the best part of ourselves, the most giving part that offers up our own honed experiences, words and art to our listeners so they can in turn connect with whatever the story touches inside of them. They get to have that experience and we can guide them through it. If that isn’t fun I don’t know what is.
- Oh, and singing? We all can sing. We just can’t all carry a tune. Sing anyway.
If you'd like to find venues near you please check out the National Storyelling Network.
(c) 2011 Laura S. Packer