The brain is a story-telling machine. A good story fulfills a number of critical functions. It captures attention. It elicits emotion. It organizes experience. It illustrates a life lesson. And because of all of these elements, a good story is memorable. In fact, we are so programmed for story-telling that it is our natural way of thinking. Story is the way we make sense of the world and get our sense of control — it underpins our sanity. We can’t tolerate uncertainty and chaos, so we will go to any lengths to create meaning. And the stories we generate are less to do with facts and more to do with our emotional comfort. We need consistency and so the stories we generate need to be consistent with our world view. Dissonance is uncomfortable.
This power of the story has several implications for how to lead a happier and healthier life. Stories can inspire and motivate us as well as others. When we hear about someone heroically overcoming adversity, it provides us with a model of resilience and a measure of hope. This is why almost every movie ever made, and any novel ever written, has the same story arc: the central character encounters obstacles and has to keep trying to overcome them even as those challenges become more numerous and more threatening. Eventually, the character prevails and, in one form or another, conquers all.
Meaning and emotion are the keys to engagement and memory. Which means stories make great lessons. If you wanted to teach anyone about anything, you’d be better off paying minimal attention to the facts and focus your efforts on creating a story that exemplifies the lesson. Not that the facts are dispensable, they’re not, but they will come alive in the context of a good story.
Now a good screenplay is very tight. It has no extraneous or tangential scenes. Every shot serves the purpose of moving the story forward. Unfortunately, life is not as clear cut. There are endless variations and shades of grey in real life but these are sacrificed in the story. The world is very complex and the story is an over-simplified version of reality. This creates problems because the power of the story can easily overwhelm reason. Neuroscience calls this ‘cognitive bias’ and recent research well described in Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, fast and slow shows that human beings are suckers for a good story. And marketers have been exploiting that tendency for eons.
“This medicinal herb has been used for centuries..” Great but that is not the same as scientific evidence that it works.
‘This person lost a hundred pounds using this technique…” Great but you can’t assume that this person’s story is typical.
“It cost us a vast fortune to find this remedy…” Great but expensiveness is not the same as efficacy.
And so on.
Perhaps more destructive than marketing hype are the stories we tell about ourselves. We are likely to overgeneralize about our faults and weaknesses.
“I’m no good at art.” “I suck at relationships.” “I’m useless with money.” Are they accurate self-descriptions or damaging over-generalizations? In their simplicity do they miss some important complexity, like the fact no one has ever explained to you the principles of effective money management, or that you misunderstand what art really is?
To really examine your self-beliefs, you need to closely examine the stories you’re telling yourself. You also need to ask where you got that story. So many of our stories come from other people’s opinions, and no one is perfect and we all have our biases. You don’t want to base your worth on other people’s neuroses.
In what way are your stories dangerous over-generalizations? Can you imagine circumstances, or even remember occasions, when the story didn’t hold up? Do you invoke extremes, like “always” and “never” to describe yourself? How accurate are those extremes?
The examination of your stories — and the story-telling process — is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself. It can rid you of some seriously self-limiting beliefs and free you from the chains of convenient but inaccurate over- generalizations.
The role of story is important in how we understand pain and in future blogs I will demystify some of the confusion around pain that comes from telling simple but biased and misleading stories about it.