Okay, so I’ve always had a flair for the dramatic, I’ll admit it. Since I was kid, I loved telling stories, and everything is fodder for my story mill. I remember returning from a trip to southern California when I was 14. Our family went out to dinner and I entertained the entire restaurant with a play by play, pumped with drama, report of my experience. A trip to the grocery store can figure just as large on the stage of life. I just see story in everything, and guess what—I’m not alone.
Do try this at home, kids:
Back in the 1940s, a couple of scientists by the name of Heider and Simmel conducted an interesting experiment. They showed a very simple, one-and-a-half-minute film to 120 people, and followed it up with one very simple question: What happened? Watch the film yourself and answer the question before reading on.
Out of the 120 people interviewed, only three gave a straightforward, factual answer—that they saw geometric shapes moving around the screen. The other 117 people told a story. They gave meaning to the shapes and movement, making up a story to describe what they saw, and the stories they created were unique and diverse. Most of us can’t NOT do it. We think in terms of story.
We are always “imposing the order of story structure on the chaos of existence.”
This is a quote from Jonathan Gottschall. He describes the Heider and Simmel experiment and discusses the power and significance of story in his book, The Storytelling Animal, and the YouTube video based on that book. He says we are always telling stories; even when we’re asleep, our brains are still busy telling stories that often come across in our dreams. Human interaction is constructed largely on story.
Think about it. When you get together with your friends and talk, what do you say? You trade stories about your experiences or tell about what happened to someone else. You gossip, you one-up each other, you reminisce, horrify, shock, and amuse each other with story. Without story to organize and give meaning to our experiences, they are but a jumble of confusion, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” as Shakespeare put it.
People are cool and amazing, each one with something unique to contribute.
There’s one more marvelous point I’d like to make on the subject, and it goes back to something I mentioned in regard to the experiment with the geometric shapes. The stories people created to describe what they saw were unique and diverse. I find it fascinating that such a short and simple visual would spawn 117 different stories.
Each time I participate in a writing competition based on a prompt, the same fear grips me that the story I write will be just like the story everyone else writes. I am always amazed at the diversity that comes from the same, specific prompt. Each of us is unique, with something to contribute that no one else can, and each of us is on this earth to write our own story, and share it with humanity. I am so grateful that we are creatures of story, or to phrase it as Jonathan Gottschall does, we are storytelling animals.