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We Storytellers: How stories are at the heart of every human interaction

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Everyone enjoys a good story and we are all natural-born storytellers. Sharon Lesley Le Roux, one of this year’s mentors in the Around DB and Life on Lantau Young Writer’s Competition, reports.

There once was a comedian called Max, and like other comedians at the time, Max had a catchphrase. He would start his performances with, ‘I wanna tell you a story’, and the people in the audience would listen with rapt attention, hanging on his every word.

Have you ever wondered what it is about the promise of a story that has us sitting up in our seats? Are you sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin.


Making sense of our world

The truth is, storytelling is at the very heart of human interaction, we literally talk in stories. Every day we each tell, and listen to, hundreds of stories: I had such a weird dream last night; You’ll never guess what happened at work today; I met So-and-so this morning, and she said: ‘Remember that family who lived at the end of our street who…’, and so on. Between teller and listener, author and reader, a symbiotic relationship exists; we need to tell, and be told, stories.

Why is that? Well, it turns out sharing really is about caring. As individuals, it’s impossible for us to be in more than one place at a time, and so we look to each other to share our experiences of the world. Anthropologists tell us we most likely began telling stories as a way of educating or warning others about the beneficial or dangerous situations we encountered. Author Lisa Cron, in her book, Wired For Story, believes story is what first enabled us to visualise what might happen in future situations, and prepare for them.

It seems our brains are hardwired for story. In his book, The Art of Immersion, Frank Rose says we use stories to make sense of our world. When information is shared, our brains look for the story in the content, rather than the content in the story, in order to make sense of that information. This is because our brains look for the familiar amongst the new when attempting to assimilate new information. Combining the new with what is already known – familiar places, people or situations – makes the brain more susceptible to accepting and storing it.

Long before we recorded information about the world around us by writing it down, we stored it in our brains, committing it to memory in story format. Studies by Stanford University have proven that when we hear or read information delivered as a story, we’re 22 times more likely to remember it than if we’re just given the bare facts. Consider for a moment, how you remember the origins of the sandwich or the wellington boot. It’s most likely due to the stories you heard about the Earl and the Duke, and the reasons for their inventions.

Story affects us in ways that fact alone doesn’t. This is because the human brain processes imagined experiences the same way it does real ones. Psychologist Pamela Rutledge says story creates genuine emotions and presence (the sense of being somewhere) as well as behavioural responses. Have you ever been so completely engrossed in a novel or a movie that you found yourself crying real tears of laughter or sadness? Ever found yourself suddenly acutely aware of every noise, movement and shadow around you, the hairs on the back of your neck rising, as you listened to a ghost story? A story has the power to immerse us in a situation we’ve never been in – and are probably never likely to be in – enabling us to experience it, see it, feel it.

Expanding our horizons

Story is the door key to our very own private holodeck, and we love the virtual reality therein, no matter the guise in which it appears. When we watch Jack Reacher blowing the bad guys to smithereens on the big screen, we each feel we’ve personally taken back control of our world, just a little. We listen to voicemail messages, waiting, not only for the message, but the meaning, and the consequence. We feel every emotion as we are caught up in the pages of Austen and Shakespeare, Facebook and Twitter. Any good album contains songs that evoke the various feelings of love: from how love at first sight feels, through being in love, and loss and heartbreak, to all the way back again (listen, feel, repeat).

We watch drama because it delivers precisely that; we get to feel the drama without the inconvenience of having to leave our sofas and go through it in real life. And, we tell each other our real-life stories, often embellishing or ‘stretching’ the truth just a little, simply because it makes our stories better. Information delivered in the form of over-the-fence gossip is deliciously packaged, and the near non-existence of truth seems hardly important at all.

When we interact through story, we don’t just share information, we share ourselves; our feelings, our opinions, thus making the messages we send not merely factual, but meaningful to those around us. Whether it’s around the campfire, the dining table, or the TV, story allows us to affirm, and challenge, our shared values beliefs, and wisdom. And, while doing so, we’re able to pass these things forward, from parent to child, from generation to generation. We all remember that much-loved uncle who we gathered around to hear tell the family stories, and today we remember, and tell, those same stories.

We humans use stories to deliver and receive information in such a way that it is easily understood, stored, recalled and experienced. It’s not simply the case that storytelling is something we do; very often we do it without realising, without consciously choosing to. We talk to each other in stories because we can’t do otherwise. The author Vera Nazarian says old storytellers don’t die, they simply disappear into their own stories. Storytelling is such a fundamental part of each one of us – it isn’t what we do, it’s who we are.

Sharon Lesley Le Roux runs creative writing classes for kids and young adults at The Story Studio, with workshops in Mui Wo, Tung Chung and Discovery Bay. Sharon is one of the mentors in this year’s Around DB and Life on Lantau Young Writer’s Competition (YWC). You can contact her on 6341 3989, email [email protected], or visit www.thestorystudiohk.com.

Images: Sharon Lesley Le Roux and unsplash.com

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