Why Stories Work: The Evolutionary and Cognitive Roots of the Power of Narrative by Somdev Chatterjee takes an alternative approach to delve into the history of narratives and its evolution into contemporary forms, says Nirabari Bandyopadhyay in a review.
Why Stories Work:
The Evolutionary and Cognitive Roots of the Power of Narrative
Author: Somdev Chatterjee
Publisher: Notion Press
Price: Rs 299
“After Altamira, all is decadence,” the great painter Pablo Picasso said after visiting the caves of Altamira.
Who doesn’t have a story?
The prehistoric cave paintings signify a primitive form of communication and the paintings by anonymous artists had truly left an ‘impression’. One may ask questions like which part of the story was presented through the piece of art on the darkest walls of the caves? How was it received by its first audience? With the passage of time the audience has redefined the story of those paintings depending on theories and myths. This may lead one to seek the origin of storytelling and how it has evolved into its present form. How is it related to other aspects of human civilization? The book under review focuses on these questions.
Somdev Chatterjee in his book Why Stories Work: The Evolutionary and Cognitive Roots of the Power of Narrative has outlined how storytelling makes us human living inside the narrative and meta narratives of stories. The importance of stories is not limited to film, literature or television shows but goes much deeper than that. The author claims that the ability to tell stories has been at the foundation of the success of homo sapiens as a species. Gleaning insights from psychology, the cognitive and social sciences, he argues that stories are not only effective tools for the transmission of knowledge, but they also help us envisage the future and act collaboratively to realize our vision. On the other hand, shared stories also help create our sense of community (religious or national), thus dictating who is our friend and who our enemy. In the Introduction he says:
In their darker aspect, stories are the greatest weapons of mass destruction ever built. They deserve our respect — and a healthy dose of fear. Which is why this book is not aimed only at those who want to tell or study stories for a living. All of us need to know where stories get this mysterious power over us — a power that is all the greater because it often goes unnoticed.
The book has four chapters. The first three chapters deal with the importance of storytelling for our survival and success as a species. On the other hand, the last chapter explores the ability of the narrative arts to take advantage of weaknesses and biases in our psychic makeup to wield their power over us. This dialectical approach makes the book immensely interesting and it can become a manual for reading the history of stories and storytelling from a biocultural perspective. The in-depth analysis in simple language not only makes it accessible to any reader but also relevant to aspiring script writers and storytellers.
In Chapter 1, the author explains how thousands of years ago, social cooperation, verbal communication and sharing knowledge became essential for survival of our ancestors who did not have the strength or natural weapons of other predators. Language evolved, and gradually stories became a way to share knowledge, build communities, and facilitate cooperation within the group. Stories perform as means for the imparting of knowledge, drawing the attention of the audience, shaping up communities and setting up a shared set of values to be followed. As Chatterjee concludes:
Stories teach us how to live — they are what has kept us alive throughout our evolutionary history.
Chapter 2 deals with the question of how human beings evolved to pay attention and respond emotionally to stories, and learn from accounts of events that they know are false. The human mind often engages in mental simulation assessing future scenarios and trying to find the optimum strategy to survive. Children engaging in role play step into a fictional world which requires shared fictional inhabitation and simulation. Both of these activities lie at the foundation of our propensity to pay attention to and learn from fictional narratives. The chapter begins by discussing the importance of mental simulation as a ‘learning technique’. As the author explains, when confronted with an uncertain and high-risk future, we engage in mental simulations which take a narrative form:
“…. you construct a story in your mind, and if it does not have a happy ending, you reject it and move onto the next simulation. You die a hundred deaths in your mind to avoid having to die for real.”
The chapter further describes that our emotional systems can identify the real and fictional, the first might generate anxiety and the later may generate fear or pleasure. Thus, role-playing games, frequently played by children, enable emotional ‘rehearsal’ as well as experiencing real pleasure.
Chapter 3 raises the most important questions discussed by students, academics and even practitioners of the art of storytelling. Why are stories so powerful? Why do we encounter similar patterns in popular stories? For ages theorists and philosophers from different schools have studied the narrative patterns in fables, myth and epics. Structuralists focus on the structural similarities of these stories. In this chapter Chatterjee makes a unique claim that the basic structure of stories is a reflection of the structure of human experience. Evolution has equipped us with certain hacks to survive in any situation with extremely limited cognitive resources. So, we do not see all of reality, but only as much as is needed to know how to act. The world we experience is not that of matter moving through space, but a value-laden world of goals, obstacles, threats, rivals – in other words, a world very similar to that of stories. This, the author claims, is the secret of the power of stories over us — they are maps of our experience.
Chapter 4 is the most interesting section of the book which establishes a connection between storytelling and human cognitive processes in order to explain why stories have their extraordinary power to hold our attention and evoke emotional responses. The author discusses how mirror neurons make storytelling possible by evoking empathy in response to audio-visual stimuli, how supernormal stimuli in narrative form evoke heightened desires or give us pleasure in an extraordinarily concentrated form. Stories also reward our ability to detect patterns in it at various levels. Consuming stories becomes another mode of puzzle solving — a tendency inherited by human beings from their evolutionary ancestors. The complex nature of the stories with well-defined causal links and hidden connections between the events as well as patterns of speech and behaviour of the characters gives its audience the pleasure of pattern detection.
The book will surely be an asset for all teachers, critics and practitioners. The simple language, descriptive nature and insights from recent scientific experiments will draw the attention of any reader. The book takes an alternative approach to delve into the history of narratives and its evolution into contemporary forms.
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