Storytelling, what is that?

28 Nov

Recently I heard a podcast episode of Tech Nation by Moira Gunn and David Ewing Ducan, called Evolution of Overconfidence. The discussion was about how having a moderate degree of overconfidence has shaped our evolution as human beings. This got me to thinking about what storytelling actually is. I have struggled with the concept of storytelling and why it is so important. I think I have found some pieces of the puzzle for you.

We humans have build a reputation of a species which gets into trouble quite easily, and has a hard time getting out of there. Someone with a more cautious disposition would never rush into dangerous situations as some human individuals seem to do. It is not that we don’t see the danger, but we defy it, even look for places where danger lurks. We praise our heroes, people who found themselves in dangerous situations and had to deal with it.

So what has that all to do with storytelling, you might think. Well, not everyone is as brave as some. The world is actually a very dangerous place to be in. It kills people all the time, and we don’t want to die, especially if dying can be prevented. Even the most cranky curmudgeon has at least some willingness to hear about how to survive certain dangers. Of course, there are more ways to die than just physical death.

Suppose there exists some unknown danger. It may be that a few individuals have faced this danger, and a couple of them have successfully dealt with it. They might be very willing to share their accounts of what happened, and it might entertain a few of their friends. If, however, there is a storyteller among their friends, who collects the accounts and transforms those into a single story with mythical proportions, the original accounts might reach more people. The story will not be as true to the facts as the original material, but the gist of conquering a danger and how it was done (in general terms) is still intact.

Seen in that perspective storytelling becomes something to take away fears and doubts that live in people’s minds. Everyone has had bad experiences, but a good story will explain how to deal with a bad situation, make you more confident to face danger, even if it is not as heroic as the hero in the story.

The point I want to make here is that stories help people to cope with danger and overcome it. There is no doubt in my mind that this character trait of sharing stories is as old as humanity, and in some ways has altered the course of human evolution, making humans the most successful of the big animals on this planet.

And don’t think we didn’t have competition. From what we know now, Homo Sapiens sapiens wasn’t the strongest of the bunch, or even had the largest brain. I just think we got lucky and managed to survive a (hypothetical) near-extinction by believing the future will be better for our children, and our children’s children. Those who didn’t, didn’t leave any offspring.

Storytelling is one of the reasons why we humans still move around, against all odds. At least, that is what I think. If you think that’s hogwash, please share by commenting. I’d love to read your side of the story.

That is all.

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One Response to “Storytelling, what is that?”

  1. Brandon November 28, 2009 at 5:35 pm #

    This is so true. Jared Diamond makes basically the same point in Guns, Germs and Steel. One of the reasons the Spaniards decimated the Incas is because they had a better way of storing and sharing stories (books and libraries) Pizarro had stories he could draw on to help him make strategic decisions. Atahualpa had none.

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