Sunday, May 31, 2015

Stories That Move

We are only scratching the surface of how the mind works. We know that being human gives us incredible imaginations and our storytelling ability, along with our ability to believe, gives us magical superpowers. We can hop the gaps between what we know.

This 'fuzzy power' comes with a whole lot of warnings. These 'Cognitive Biases' can be looked at as mistakes, or our brains and emotions not working properly. They can also be used to help us when we understand them. I spoke of the magical properties of stories to help us remember things. Rory Daly responded, 'You have a great point here. But, this same cognitive process that makes stories memorable, is also behind people picking up and repeating stuff that is purely anecdotal... So many unsubstantiated ideas dressed as truth...'

This is known as 'Availability Bias'. It is the tendency to overestimate the likelihood of events if we are able to remember them easily. If you struggle to remember something, you think it is unusual. But we remember things that are violent, sexy, funny or memorable in some way. Emotionally charged things are memorable. Stuff that happened recently are memorable. These are the stories that are then 'Available' when we think. Boring facts slip away.

If a story is particularly powerful, it is likely to affect the way we think. Someone who is mugged ,or who knows someone who is mugged, will think the whole country in which they live is more dangerous than someone who isn't able to feel the danger as palpably. Someone who has a racist interaction with one person may be more likely to have a negative emotional response the next time they think of that 'group of people'. This bears limited connection to the whole group. We can respond excessively to the crazies because they make more noise and make us more angry. More broadly the power of stories to help us can also hold us back.

The Dalai Lama sees the role of religion as storytelling of sorts. If science proves his beliefs wrong, he will change his beliefs. His beliefs help push him into experiences that he wouldn't get to if he waited for us to figure things out. In the same way as facts shouldn't get in the way of a good story, ideally, stories shouldn't get in the way of good facts.

Fortunately things like ethics, morals, laws, and facts can be separated from stories. We can enjoy the power of anecdotes, but we can step back and look at the bigger picture to tweak our stories when they need tweaking. Perhaps that is why some of the best stories were part of aural tradition where they were never written but rather told, or sung.

When shared over meals and fireplaces, stories can adjust themselves. They can introduce new characters. Characters can evolve. Each telling is important. The storyteller, where the story is told and who it is told to all matter. The best stories move with us, not against us.

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