Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Why We Tell Stories

This is from the text of a talk I gave at St. George's Episcopal Church this past Sunday. There is no religious angle to it, however. Father Paul is just intrigued that he has a professional author lurking in his congregation and wanted to know what it's about. I am going to present this in parts. Here is Part One:

“Minds exist to predict what will happen next.”
- Professor Brian Boyd, Distinguished
Professor of English, University of Auckland,
New Zealand, author of On the Origin of Stories:
Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction

Animals look for patterns. They help them – they help us – make sense of the world. Animals are born knowing some, and strive at once to acquire more through learning and experience.

A barely-dry chick will cower or run for cover if the bird flying overhead has its wings placed more forward on its body than centered, but will go about his business if the wings are toward the back. A duck’s wings are back – a hawk’s wings are forward.

An infant forty-five minutes old will imitate a human adult’s facial expressions, smiling, closing and opening her eyes, and sticking her tongue out, if the adult shows them to her. By the age of three months, an infant can tell the difference between animate and inanimate objects. By eight months, according to scientists who study babies, it understands the basic laws of physics.

It is important to survival to be able to tell if that person approaching a friend or an enemy. We can learn to look for signs of aggression. We can practice until we know we can throw a rock hard enough, accurately enough, to run him off. Survival skills are learned, honed and polished through play. Children run, jump, throw balls and rocks and sticks, wrestle, climb and yell in mock fear or anger at the tops of their lungs. Like other social animals, they’d much rather play with others than alone. They play baseball, football, hockey, basketball, hide and seek, war, monsters, cops and robbers, house. They play games that call for skill and cunning as well as physical exertion.

All animals play games of imagination – ever been stalked by a kitten? Played tug of war with a dog? Have you seen that video of a crow using a bottle cap for a sled?

Play is important not only to survival but to socialization. A scientist interviewed hundreds of homicidal psychopaths and he found ninety percent of them did not play as children.

Not every game calls for it, but one very popular variant of play is make-believe:
“Let’s play King and Queen!”
“Okay, if I can be the dragon!”

I don’t believe children ever play real life, re-enacting actual incidents from their lives. They want adventure, danger, fantasy.

They not only make up stories themselves, they love to listen to stories.

Adult humans play, too. We never seem to lose our affection – our need, actually – for games.

And like children, adults love to listen to stories, to read stories, to watch actors create stories.

And some of us like to invent stories.

Next: But what is the survival use of stories?


Mollie Cox Bryan said...

I'm the mom of two girls--one is now 13 and the other is 10. At first, the feminist in me hated their attraction to Barbies. But as I watched them play, I saw they were really just storytelling with their dolls. (Organized and multi-facted narratives. heh.) They do it with dance and music, too. I hope that impulse never goes away. Fabulous post!

Linda O. Johnston said...

Great post and talk, Monica. It reminds me of my favorite quote, original author unknown: "Reality is only for those who lack imagination!"

Linda said...

Great post--it reminds me of the Toys R Us add, "I don't wanna grow up..." It is a wonderful thing to still be able to imagine--after all, who can really write fiction without imagination?

Please post part two soon...

Betty Hechtman said...

Thanks for sharing part one with us. I'm looking forward to part two.

Lynn said...

I have seen that video of the crow sledding on the roof with the bottle cap and it makes me laugh every time. The only reason he does it is because it's fun!

And I find it fascinating from a psychological standpoint that 90% of psychopaths didn't play as children.

Looking forward to part 2.

JanG said...

More! More! Eagerly awaiting the rest of the post.

I just finished reading Threadbare and need a good adjective that's in search of a sentence. The book was too complex to reduce to a descriptor or two, and I like them that way. Betsy is evolving nicely, and so is Godwin. Keep on writing!

Ellen said...

Jan -

If you are looking for a single adjective for Threadbare, consider bleak. It's cold, it's snowy, and the victims weren't in such a good place even before they died.

Remember: "...in the bleak midwinter".

JanG said...

Ellen, that's a good word. The hymn has long been one of my favorites, sung at Advent in my church. Rosetti's poetry is wonderful. The word also describes both physical and emotional barrenness, and the book highlights that as well. Monica, we're talking about you and your book behind your back, but in complimentary terms!