Storytelling: The Sixth Sense

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Biology 202

2006 Third Web Paper

On Serendip

Storytelling: The Sixth Sense

Bethany Canver

Storytelling is an integral part of everyday life that we are first exposed to as young children and then actively engage in as we grow older. Traditionally, we think of storytelling in terms of its educational or cultural functions; stories can teach morals, cultural expectations, and behavioral norms. A large part of what maintains and perpetuates society comes in the form of a story, whether it's in a book, magazine, on television, in a movie, on the internet, or on the evening news. The knowledge individuals have because of the storytelling they are constantly exposed to vastly outweighs the firsthand knowledge they have about the world. Therefore, storytelling can be described as biologically imperative because, like sight of hearing, stories help individuals make sense of the complex world around them.

Through language and symbols whose meanings are learned during the process of socialization, human beings are able to communicate complicated stories to one another. The utility of this phenomenon is that even when an individual has not had the experience being told as a story, the individual is able to recreate the scenario in his/her mind. The recreated scenario is now a part of the individual's body of knowledge and can be drawn on for reference in the future. Just as our sense reduce the multitude of external signals to a less complex "story" that dictates how individuals understand and experience the world, our mind works at a macro level (relative to sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch) to reduce complex inputs so that they are manageable. The brain groups certain patterns of sense as well as behaviors into stories that are used to predict outcomes. For example, when an individual smells smoke and hears sirens he/she is most likely to conclude that there is a fire because his/her brain has already linked smoke and sirens in a previous story. A series of such causal relationships bring order to the complexity of the external world (1).

Not only are individuals passive listeners of stories but they are also actively creating and telling stories to others. New experiences, for example, are reduced to a story with a causal relationship embedded in it and is classified as what Ken Baskin calls an "antenarrative" (1) , or a mutable version of the story. When repeated testing of the story's causal relationship yields consistent outcomes the story becomes a fixed part of an individual's personal knowledge and aids the individual in understanding how the world works according to his/her perceptions. Baskin describes this process in terms of a "self-reinforcing feedback loop" (1) in which actual outcomes that are consistent with the expected outcomes predicted from a story define what an individual knows and defines as real.

In communicating ideas, images, or situations through storytelling a greater understanding of experiences is gained by both the storyteller and the listener because as Robin Mello notes, storytelling is an interactive phenomenon (2) . By sharing stories with others, an individual can compare that which he/she has determined to be factual against another individual's story of his/her experience in what is essentially a "negotiated transaction" (2). Therefore, the ways individual brains make sense of the world is part of a larger collective understanding of how things work. It is this collective understanding of stories which ensures some degree of uniformity across a given culture's stories. The causal relationships in stories which are accepted outside the individual level outline the rules used to generate fictitious stories.

Not only are stories told at the interpersonal level but they are also told by the storyteller portion of the brain to the audience portion of the brain (3). The brain is on one hand collecting and organizing information and then presenting it in a logical way to the I-function. It is likely that the process of creating the story for the I-function includes a great deal of choice and editing that is governed by prior experience and pre-existing stories that the I-function already has knowledge of.
Stories are intertwined with reality and memory (2) so that imaginary and factual narratives influence reality and memory and reality and memory, in turn, influence the propagation of stories. How and what is remembered or considered a part of reality is determined by how individual and collective stories categorize experiences. In addition, the stories that an individual has archived are subject to revision if the expected outcomes predicted by the story is not fulfilled. This, perhaps, accounts for the variation among memories of many people who experienced the same event.

Like science, storytelling also is a constantly evolving summary of observations which is why science can be thought of as a story (3) . In essence every human being is a scientist who is conducting experiments at all times and every scientist is a storyteller who's story's plot and development is based on prior experiences.

An interesting consequence that results from the use of stories in developing a knowledge base and a sense of reality is the multiplism inherent in the process. Because every brain is wired differently it can be deduced that the storytelling portion of every brain does not categorize and present stories to their respective I-functions in a uniform manner. Despite the existence of the collective understanding of stories described above, the similarities between individual's stories are limited to the use of language and images that have relatively common meanings at the cultural level. How two individuals process and interpret the same experience can be widely varied. Where does this variation come from? Is it genetically determined that some people will only interpret experiences as positive and others as negative? If so, perhaps this can explain those in society who are called pessimists or optimists. If not genetically determined than it is possible that this variation comes from a difference in environment. For example, people who live in poverty interpret experiences differently than those who are of a higher class status. This argument has been used by Daniel Moynihan and the subsequent theory of the Culture of Poverty.

Another point to ponder is what is the storytelling portion of the brain leaving out? The storytelling-brain has to compensate for that which gets left out of the story because it is not detected or does not fit into the organizational system of the brain just as the brain has to compensate for the portion of the eye that does not have photoreceptors. This portion of the eye that is not receiving input results in a blind-spot that the brain fills in by completing the story.

Stories told by the brain to the I-function and stories told from one person to another make up what we know to be reality. We experience the world indirectly by way of our senses and are brain's organization of that information without necessarily having to have the said experience firsthand. Though we are influenced by the stories of others and the stories that are common to society as a whole, there is a great deal of variation that exists among any number of individuals who have had the same experience due to the unique neural arrangement of each human being.

1. Baskin, Ken. "The Function of Storytelling in Knowing".
2. Mello, Robin. "The Power of Storytelling: How Oral Narrative Influences Children's Relationships in Classrooms".
3. Grobstein, Paul. "Science, Pragmatism, and Multiplism".
4. Georges, Robert A. "Toward an Understanding of Storytelling Events". The Journal of American Folklore. Vol. 82 1969: 313-328.

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