Last night I visited a friend who has two children – one almost three, the other eight months old. They’re an absolute delight to be around and I realised it’s almost impossible to be in your head while you’re with little ones. Stay in your heart and you experience the joy of childhood all over again.
It’s all about play, of course – especially for the toddler – but it’s also about stories. Even though the littlest one can’t speak, you can see her bite and play with toys as if she’s constructing a narrative.
As a species we have a profound relationship with storytelling. Human beings love stories – in fact, in some fundamental sense, we need stories.
Narrative is a basic organising principle of memory, and from early childhood we tell ourselves stories about our actions and experiences. Accuracy is not the main objective – coherence is. If necessary, our minds will invent things that never happened, people who don’t exist, in order to hold the narrative together.
This tendency to confabulate – to fill in the gaps of memory with plausible inventions that preserve narrative continuity – is most pronounced in people suffering significant memory loss, or in tests with participants who have had the connection cut between left and right hemispheres.
Recent experiments have revealed a function of the left hemisphere dubbed “The Interpreter”, which jumps in to make sense of memories when it has no direct access to those memories or the context in which they were made.
Narrative coherence helps us navigate the world – to know where we’re coming from and where we’re headed. It tells us where to place our trust and why. What stories give us, in the end, is reassurance. And as childish as it may seem, that sense of security – that coherent sense of self – is essential to our survival.
So it makes sense to me that if storytelling is so important to our brains, then we need to make sure we construct a narrative that allows us to flourish. Even if you enjoy reading them, no one wants to live in a horror story. It’s never to late to make sure your story has a happy ending.
(Includes excerpts from Your Storytelling Brain by Jason Gots, www.bigthink.com/ideas/41943)