THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL- How Stories Make Us Human

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“Humans live in landscapes of make-believe. We spin fantasies. We devour novels, films, and plays. Even sporting events and criminal trials unfold as narratives. Yet the world of story has long remained an undiscovered and unmapped country. It’s easy to say that humans are “wired” for story, but why?”

Jonathan Gottschall

Jonathan Gottschall offers the first unified theory of storytelling. He argues that stories help us navigate life’s complex social problems—just as flight simulators prepare pilots for difficult situations. storytelling has evolved, like other behaviors, to ensure our survival.

Drawing on the latest research in neuroscience, psychology, and evolutionary biology, Gottschall tells us what it means to be a storytelling animal. Did you know that the more absorbed you are in a story, the more it changes your behavior? That all children act out the same kinds of stories, whether they grow up in a slum or a suburb? That people who read more fiction are more empathetic?

Of course, our story instinct has a darker side. It makes us vulnerable to conspiracy theories, advertisements, and narratives about ourselves that are more “truthy” than true. National myths can also be terribly dangerous: Hitler’s ambitions were partly fueled by a story.

But as Gottschall shows stories can also change the world for the better. Most successful stories are moral—they teach us how to live, whether explicitly or implicitly, and bind us together around common values. We know we are master shapers of story. The Storytelling Animal finally reveals how stories shape us.

Enter the circle with me and listen to the deep voice of story.

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NOK KAEOW – THE BIRD WEAVER

In the ancient time there lived a man who loved the forest. He knew that the trees were sacred and often when walking there he spoke to them softly. One day while wandering there he spotted a woman wearing a pasin of such beautiful colours. As happens in such tales they fell in love and were married.

Their wooden house was on the edge of a village and every week the woman would journey to the market to take the cloth she had woven. People from far and wide marvelled at the colour and quality of the cloth. But the man noticed that his love was getting weaker and weaker, thinner and thinner. One night he woke and found that his wife no longer lay beside him. He went to the open window and there in the moonlight in the forest clearing he saw a small bird plucking feathers from her plumage and weaving them into the cloth.

The man’s heart was heavy for he knew what he must do. The next morning the man went with the woman deep into the forest.

“Here we must part,” he said.

“No. No,” the woman cried.

Then she realised that her husband had seen her. They parted with great sorrow for it was not easy to let each other go.

But after some months a beautiful coloured bird appeared at the man’s house with some seed in her mouth. The man planted the seed and from it grew a wild mulberry tree. Silkworm came to feed on the tree and in that way wild silk was formed. At night the bird weaver spun the thread into beautiful yarns. So it was that the man and bird lived in harmony and happiness.”

FACTS

This stunning Thai bird could soon become extinct due to the palm oil industry.

This is a Gurney’s pitta, Pitta gurneyi, an endangered species that was believed to be extinct until several pairs were rediscovered in 1986. At that time, it was thought to be the rarest bird species on earth. Currently, it is estimated that there are perhaps 10 pairs of Gurney’s pittas at Khao Nor Chuchi in Thailand (other Thai populations are probably extinct). Fortunately, another, larger, population was recently discovered in southern Tenasserim, Myanmar/Burma. For this reason, this species was downlisted as endangered.

Gurney’s pitta is a terrestrial passerine that lives in lowland semi-evergreen forests with undergrowth containing Salacca palms, where it nests. These moist tropical forests are found on flat terrain, and are close to water or have water flowing through them. Tragically, their forest’s topological features and location are perfect for palm oil, rubber, and coffee plantations. Much of the remaining nearby area is heavily settled. Since the locals are actively seeking ways to improve the quality of their lives by exploiting the land for economic gain, it is probable that the pitta’s last few strongholds will be cleared suddenly and rapidly, with predictable consequences for this iconic species.

Gurney’s pitta is impossible to confuse with any other species in the area. The adult male’s iridescent blue cap and tail, warm rufous upperparts and black-and-yellow underparts are distinctive. The female is less dramatically coloured, lacking the brilliant iridescent blue cap and tail. She has a buffy-yellow head and nape, the sides of her head are black, her throat is buffy-white, her underparts are buffy-yellow with darker bars and her tail is grey-blue.

You can watch a video of this beautiful bird here:

http://www.theguardian.com/science/grrlscientist/2012/feb/27/2

Gurney’s pitta consumes slugs, insects, and earthworms, which is searches for in leaf litter. They also eat snails and small frogs. Here’s a video of an adult male Gurney’s pitta poking around in leaf litter in Khao Noi Chuchi in Krabi, Thailand:

Gurney’s pitta is one of 32 medium-sized songbirds that is placed into Pittidae, the pitta family. The pittas are all very similar in body shape, size and in their habits, although each species is distinctly marked. The family originated in tropical Asia and Australasia, and a few species are found in Africa. The continued existence of many pitta species is threatened by deforestation.

The story above is a Thai version of “The Crane’s Wife”

If you have enjoyed reading you can subscribe above or comment below. My dream is to blog a million stories! Help me get there!

Just as the Guerney’s Pitta is endangered so is the story. We are being deforested and destoried but together we can restory the world. If you have a story you would like to share please feel free to email me at ruth@leader.karoo.co.uk

Thanks for reading. Without you there would be no story.

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22 thoughts on “THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL- How Stories Make Us Human

  1. These are some lovely comments about our storytelling nature, and it articulated my thoughts on reaching the world through narrative instead of only facts. For better or for worse, narrative is our nature!

    That is a beautiful bird. The story sounds very similar to a handful of folktales in Japan, especially the Gratitude of the Crane!

  2. As I write, I’ve found I’m often writing about myself. That it’s not about me as a social animal, or my heritage, but the things that are within me that I want to map. That there’s a therapeutic aspect to it. It can be a way for me to explore the transgressive. Or just to articulate my thoughts and feelings. It always ends up being far more personal than I plan.

    You have not been in any of these stories yet. Are you going to tell stories about yourself?

    • This blog has evolved from when I started and I find myself pulled towards Haiku and Haiga. It is instinctive and is probably linked to having grown up in rural Asia. I read an essay today about Ishihara’s theory of ‘introspective shaping’ In “introspective shaping” we are with “haiku glasses” to look into our hearts, where “the landscape of truth exists”. That’s what I have started trying to do. Thanks for reading this blog and for your thoughtful comment.

  3. Another gem. You keep on bring up these beautiful stories that involve reincarnation. I love Buddhism, and you make me think twice about just the mere, remote possibility…, that it might just be possible. Thanks again! The government needs to become proactive with the Pitta. The world is simply too overpopulated with humans, there are simply too many humans on this earth, and animals like the Pitta pay the price….with….extinction…unfortunately. We need more human population control, so there’s no more need to take the forests away from their true owners: the animals!

  4. This is fascinating! I’ve also written haiku as a way of sketching in impressions, places where I think overrationalizing would be more like an autopsy than a capturing of the event or the moment or the feeling. Crystallize instead of fossilize. Thank you for giving me the name Ishihara.

    Here is something I wrote:

    We’d barely met when
    he printed me in hot sand.
    I know him and not.

    I met a guy on Koh Mak when I was twenty. It was noon, incredibly hot and we were the only two people stupid enough to be out on the beach. I asked to take his photo. About a quarter of an hour later I carried on walking up the beach and never saw him again. Except I still have the photo. There are ways in which he knows me as well as anyone else does, but I don’t think I even told him my full name. I have seen him in ways that even his best friends haven’t. How well do we know anyone? I was married for ten years, I’m not sure my husband knew me. I never told him about this (this was five years before I met him) so anyone reading this knows more than my husband about it.

    My main memory is that afterwards, when I stood up, there was a perfect imprint of my back and bottom and feet and his knees and hands in the sand. I wish I’d taken a photo of that. I’ve found myself thinking if I went back that the imprint might still be there.

    • I don’t know why but this reminds me of something that happened to me some years ago. I was in Bangkok in the hot season looking for something undefinable as people do and I sat next to a guy on a bus. It soon became clear that I was lost and I asked him for directions. Over the course of the afternoon we became wrapped in a rich and eloquent silence while we meandered through the city streets together. When it came time to part I knew him in a way I have not known anybody else. It was one of the most meaningful afternoons I have ever spent. Now when I visit Bangkok I walk that neighbourhood looking for his face on every corner but so far we have never met.

      • Sorry it took me so long to see you’d replied to this.

        That ‘knowing’ thing is so fascinating to me. When we talk about storytelling, it’s a communal thing a lot of the time. All about group identity, shared experience, what is ‘normal’ and ‘expected’ and ‘weird’. We live in our own heads, though, we don’t always know each other. I’ve known my best friend for twenty years, I always thought she was Catholic, but I found out last month she’s not.

        And this isn’t just me being imperceptive. There are lots of things people don’t know about me. If I say I have been assaulted, and that I had an affair, you would know what I mean, but you would not know what I know. Things I can’t put words to, like the sense that I’m not challenging myself. I have no name for the feeling I get when I think about my son, away at university. My first year at university I got so carried away by the sound of a lecturer’s voice I had an orgasm. The person sat next to me told me to hold my breath, because that’s how you get rid of hiccups. My daughter goes on about the short one in a boyband, I secretly desire the blond one. I had a cancer scare I didn’t tell my husband about. I pretend not to have read books I have.

        All of these things are me. This is the first time I’ve shared them. These aren’t really stories, but I find that trying to think about them poetically changes them into something other than memories. I don’t understand the process. I dread that it’s therapy, not art. Exhibitionism not honesty. I know I’m not the only person who has experienced these things, but they are all so insular, so intimate. The details mean they are mine.

      • The specific thing of expecting something to be just like it was when we were there last is very familiar to me. I always expect it to be snowing in New York, because it was the first time I went.

        Perhaps there’s some longing involved. If I met that man on the beach now … well, I’d be old enough to be his mother. But even he was into milfs, I’m not sure I’m into sex on the beach with someone I’ve known for about a minute and a half. I’ve never regretted what happened, at all. I’m glad I made that choice, I would not make that choice now, and yet I’m the same person. I would be horrified to learn that my husband or son had ever done anything like that (I naively believe my daughter to be far too young). Trying to work out my moral code here does fascinate me.

        The opposite of expecting it to be the same can be true, too. I recently met a friend from primary school who I hadn’t seen since we were eleven. I have a nineteen year old son and a sixteen year old daughter, and so I should have remembered my friend as much younger than them, but I have him in my mind as ‘my age’, so it wasn’t strange at all to meet someone who must be two feet taller and who lost all his hair and raised kids of his own.

  5. For me I lost a language when we moved to the UK and I found this profoundly disturbing. Also because I was white no-one could see my thai-ness. I decided as a child that as soon as i could i would go back which is what i did. It was hugely liberating to relearn a whole new way of thinking. When I am speaking thai now I feel known but in English I feel strangely unknown even though it is my stronger language. I hated English as a child and refused to speak it for several years. I suppose it was a way of reclaiming some power over my life.

    In thai there are different words for know. There is ‘Saab’ and ‘kowjai’ and ‘ru’. ‘Kow’ means enter and ‘jai’ means ‘mind/heart/soul’. In fact there is no direct translation in English. So when I think of know it is not the english know or the thai know, nor is it a blend. It is something different because otherwise I would not be being me or being true which makes me very definitely weird but then we have another thai word for that and so on it goes! Does this make sense?

    The imaginary landscape of self is fascinating.

    In most people’s minds the word Thailand conjures up stereotypical images of go go bars, ladyboys, drugs, palm-fringed beaches and more recently political unrest. It saddens me beyond belief. Of course it is all those things but it is so much more. And less. When I go out here with thai friends I am sometimes asked how much for one of them. This is english humour?

    So I will keep my stories and my Thailand in a safe place. And for now I will try to write words that cut through these images and perhaps in this way I will find a way in English to feel known.

  6. “It is something different because otherwise I would not be being me or being true which makes me very definitely weird but then we have another thai word for that and so on it goes! Does this make sense?”

    It makes a lot of sense. Your experience was literally alienating.

    My Thai adventures were just tourism. My first serious boyfriend was Thai. We went once together, and my love for the country easily outlasted my love for him. I saved and saved all year, and went there for some long summers. There is something about the way of thinking there that always made coming back to Wales like being a returning astronaut and being back in a grey, dull place. Some of it is just simple nostalgia, and the fact that some of my best stories are from then, and I was young and single and hadn’t settled. A lot of it is specifically Thailand, though, I think.

    But being one thing on the inside, but not what you look like … you have a very clearly delineated sense of that, and for good reason, but I think a lot of women feel like that. I don’t mean to diminish your experience when I say that, just the opposite. I just mean to say that I don’t think any of us are quite what we look like, none of us quite think we’re living on our home planet. You might have a way to express that I know I lack.

    I have a teenage daughter, and I look at her and I want to see a young woman who is a generation nearer to … wherever it is. And I want to be a woman of the twenty-first century who refuses to make the same mistake as our parents’ generation. She looks like me at that age, but prettier and more confident. Then I find a red lace thong in the laundry and my first thought is a prayer that my daughter’s still a virgin, and my second is that I could probably find out by checking her Twitter and my third is that the pressure to conform now, and the pressure to conform more, is greater than it was for us.

    And, of course, we can’t put things like this into words, in any language, because that’s the point, that’s one of the reasons for the unease. It sounds melodramatic, but women are a colonised people. We don’t have our own language. It’s just occurred to me that Thais aren’t a colonised people. Perhaps that’s why I always felt at ease there.

    You have an acute case of something we all feel. I think your experience, and your poetry, might find a way of expressing it.

    Sorry, I have been waffling on. I don’t want to get in the way of your creativity and exploration, I just want to tell you I appreciate it a lot.

  7. Thank you.

    Have you seen ‘Uncle Boonmee who Can Recall His Past Lives’? It was filmed in the north-east of Thailand and without wanting to sound all mystical and easterly it encapsulates Thainess more than anything else I have come across. That and ‘Four Reigns’ by Kukrit Pramoj.

  8. Thank you for the recommendations. I have just watched a trailer for Uncle Boonmee and I will track down the movie. I’ve ordered Four Reigns.

    I’m ashamed that I don’t remember more than a couple of words of Thai. Kipling said that the best way to learn a language was to go to bed with someone who spoke it, he called it ‘a dictionary in skirts’. My first lover was one of the owners of a Thai restaurant in my town where I was a part time waitress. I could never write it, I could get by speaking it. Not now, twenty five years later.

    Sort of linked to that, and to what I wrote last time, is a new haiku I’ve written:

    Finding my daughter’s
    lace thong reminds me of what
    I knew at her age.

    Thainess reminds me of many of my rites of passage. At one point in my life, it seemed to have a gravitational pull on me. Thank you for these new points of contact.

  9. Personally I prefer the loincloth. Each to their own.

    Kipling is an interesting choice. What I feel about Kipling is huge empathy for the loss of his son. It must be devastating to lose a child at any age.

    • I saw Uncle Boonmee … twice. Extraordinary, and thank you for leading me to it. The encounters with the uncanny in that were fascinating, it reminded me that in Thailand things we’d think of as odd are taken for granted, that so many of the things we’d use negative words for like creepy or ghostly or weird are seen as positives.

      I watched it twice because I loved it as a film. The first time I expected things to happen, or the pace to change. The second time, I was a little more relaxed, so I was able to soak things up more.

      Thanks again.

    • And Kipling – he wrote that in a letter to his son, serving in the trenches in France. As I face up to ’empty nest syndrome’, it’s a good reminder that there are worse fates for parents than two kids growing up and heading off into the world.

  10. Pakama! Wow, I can hear how terrible my accent is even when I type.

    She’s fluent in Thai,
    Because her dictionary
    Was a good volume.

    I think I’ve just written the script for Carry on Haiku.

    • I have read Kindred, a long time ago. I studied for a year in America, my work takes me there every few years. The way Americans construct their history is so odd, a very smooth tale of progress and clear-cut goodies and baddies. It’s very sanitised. Kindred was a very nice way of holding up to the light the realities of American slavery – there are still white men in the South who think slavery meant working in the sunshine and dancing and that African Americans were better off back then than they are now. Some schools still teach that. You still have newspaper columnists astonished to learn that isn’t the case –

      http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/richard-cohen-12-years-a-slave-and-arts-commentary-on-the-past/2013/11/04/f0e57a92-4588-11e3-b6f8-3782ff6cb769_story.html

      American men – white American men – always seem so threatened by everything even slightly not American, white or male. But they’re not exactly scared, it’s more like they’re just confused by it. I may be generalising wildly or working from a skewed sample, but if you want to freak out an American man, you can do it just by saying ‘vagina’ or ‘period’. I pretty much gave an American boyfriend – a big, macho guy – shellshock by having sex with him during my period, he barely spoke for a week afterwards.

      We British can be a little too keen to declare that something foreign is ‘exotic’, but Americans just try to work out how it’s not all that different. They do that with the past, even with the future in their science fiction. ‘Just like us, deep down’. I remember Kindred being a nice antidote to that.

      I also remember it being as much about being a woman in a brutal man’s world. I may need to read it again. I’d have probably have been my daughter’s age when I read it. It’s raising her (and a son) that’s been a major factor in making me realise just how differently men and women are treated, what is expected of them, their relatively safety and so on. I imagine reading it again, it’ll be about gender as much as it’s about race.

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