Cows, Cunk, and the Power of Story

Happy October, everyone!

I know I keep saying I’m not going to keep going on and on about fall, but honestly, this is the best season. It just is. This is an objective truth. You summer people can just take your iced coffee and flip flops somewhere else until next year, because this is the best season, hands down. I make no apologies.

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This is the time of year when I feel completely justified in blowing off all social engagements and hiding in my office with books, yarn, and pets. One could argue that winter would be a better season for that, given that it’s entirely possible we’ll be snowed in for at least part of December through February. My argument is that I’m happy to just extend the anti-social behavior from October through… oh, maybe late April? Early May at the latest.

Anyway, since I’ve now fully descended into the solitude phase of the hermit cycle, my brain is engaging in more philosophy than it usually does when I’m more focused on daily life management. I recently wrote a piece for a client about why leaders need to be better storytellers, and it started me thinking about storytelling in general–as in, why do we even tell stories? What’s the value or purpose?

The short answer is that we’re human, and storytelling is as central to the human experience as breathing is. We almost can’t help it. We are either telling stories or consuming them. Some people are better than others at telling stories, but everyone has a basic capacity for it, and everyone consumes stories regularly.

But I don’t think the short answer really satisfies.

Like Breathing

Think about why we breathe. Everyone does it to maintain life, but why does breathing work? What is it about breathing that’s so central to our existence? We inhale a mixture of mostly nitrogen with some oxygen and other elements, it enters the lungs and gets processed and exchanged, and we exhale the waste of that process in the form of carbon dioxide. All that stuff that our bodies keep goes on to do other things–help keep our hearts pumping, transfer blood to other organs, fuel the digestive process, all that other business. And of course, our waste–carbon dioxide–is recycled by plants into more oxygen, and so goes the cycle.

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So why stories? What do they do for us, and why do we need them?

I think it starts with connection, and that goes all the way back to cavemen and all the way through neuroscience.

We’ve been watching Cunk on Earth, largely because we have a warped sense of humor and love very silly British comedy. The thing I actually really like about Philomena Cunk is that she kind of hits the nail on the head in unexpected ways. Here she is interviewing real-life academic experts who try to give her serious answers, and she asks things like “why do they play hey nonny nonny music in Medieval times?” She’s just one of us, asking silly questions that we’d never ask and voicing thoughts we’ve all had at one point or another, and I am totally here for it.

Anyway, in the clip where Philomena goes to look at cave art, I think she does sort of make a good point in her unique way:

All of this clip is outstanding, honestly. Her comments that “it gets better” and “just boring stories about cows standing still” sort of hint at what most of us think when we are supposed to be awed by something but just aren’t feeling it.

But it’s the comment at the end that applies to storytelling. When Philomena says that “Humans vs. Cows 2D” is the caveman equivalent of Fast and Furious: Part 7, she’s revealing a deep truth about storytelling: stories connect humans to other humans in a way nothing else can. We understand in a place we can’t even identify that Humans vs. Cows 2D is a story of the hunt–of humans overcoming the threat of death either from stampede or starvation. We connect with the emotions these two-dimensional humans would have experienced–excitement of finding animals to provide, fear that they’ll get away or overwhelm, joy in a successful hunt, satisfaction from a hearty feast and a new skin to use as clothing or shelter.

Which brings us to the science of story…

The Science of Humans vs. Cows 2D

I’ve watched this TED Talk from Karen Eber about five times now, and I get more out of it every time. I highly recommend you spend 15 minutes watching it:

 

The whole thing is worth watching, but the part I want to point out starts about three minutes in. Eber describes what happens in our brains when we consume data vs. when we consume story. When we’re in a setting where we’re just being fed data or information, two parts of our brains light up–Broca’s Area and Wernicke’s Area. These are the two areas largely responsible for our ability to process speech and language. Of course we need these two areas to process what we’re hearing, but because there’s not a lot of connection being formed in this process, we tend to forget much of what we hear.

When we hear a story, on the other hand, the entire brain lights up with activity. As the storyteller describes a sight, sound, or smell, the lobe of our brain responsible for that sense lights up in exactly the same way that the storyteller’s lights up.

Imagine our caveman storyteller relaying his hunt to a listening audience. He might start by talking about how his hunting party smelled or heard the cows in the distance, and we might smell livestock or hear the lowing of cattle. He might tell us about seeing the cows in an open field, and every human who’s seen a herd of cows knows what that looks like. He might describe how he and his companions crept up to the edge of the herd, and our hearts might race with anticipation. We might even clench a fist in anticipation of throwing a spear.

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This whole process is called neural coupling, and it explains why we connect with the storyteller when the storyteller shares these descriptions and actions with us. Our brains want to put us in the circumstances we’re hearing about. It’s why our hearts pound and our palms sweat in an intense action sequence in a movie.

But stories do more than just create neural coupling. As the stories activate our brains, connections are made not only between us and the storyteller, but between us and those around us who are also hearing the story. All this brain activity stimulates an emotional response, which releases dopamine and other chemicals that create bonds and help us remember better.

So why is all this important?

The Breath of Story

I love what Dr. Michelle Thaller says about story in this piece from The New York Times:

The human mind is all about connections. A single neuron, thought or fact makes no sense; it’s the links and underlying maps we create that allow us to parse reality…. What we think of as a universe extending into space and time is just how our limited brains perceive an underlying structure of pure connection.

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The more I write and read, the more I am coming to understand that it isn’t the writing itself that makes a good story. We can all think of dozens of poorly written stories that still managed to resonate and make connections with a lot of people. We all have guilty pleasure books, movies, songs, jokes, whatever that we know are poorly executed or in bad taste, and yet they somehow create an emotional connection in our brains.

I think that stories are the air to our psyches. I think our psyches have to find stories somewhere in order to maintain even a semblance of health. And if we don’t have great stories to consume, we’ll take good or even poor stories. Just as we have to keep breathing even when air quality is bad, we’ll keep drawing in stories to feed that never-ending need our psyches have to make connections. The connections may be good, bad, or neutral, but they must be made. The storytelling drive is as intense as any other we have as humans, because our psyches are as desperate for story as our lungs are for air.

I have more to say about this, but I think it will have to wait, because this is getting long…

So until next week… May your October be full of color, and may you find all the stories you need to make your psyche happy.

 

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