Story triggers a time machine

by JoslynChase, August 5, 2019 in Learning, Story Power, Storytelling, Travel

Photo credit, Harry CunninghamWhat if I told you there is such a thing as a time machine and that story is what fuels it? Stick with me for a few moments and I’ll explain what I mean.

Remember story problems in math class? Some students love them, and some hate them, but either way they are an important part of learning mathematical concepts and helping us to internalize that knowledge. To a small child, two plus two equaling four is an abstract concept. But what if that same child is told that Becky has two apples and wants to make a pie that requires four apples? Her friend, Sally, is coming over and bringing two more apples. Together they’ll have four apples—enough to make that delicious pie. That simple story makes the abstract concrete and relatable.

That is one of the functions of story. It’s an integral part of our lives, and when something is given to us in story form, it is far more easily assimilated by the brain than plain facts or figures. Thus, we tell ourselves stories all the time to cement ideas and direct our choices.

So where does the time travel come in?

Photo credit, Jonas VerstuyftReal Clear Science published an article by Ross Pomeroy in which he equates story to a form of “mental time travel.” He contends that we use story to consciously reconstruct past events in order to help us make future decisions. In the article, he wrote, “The process of recalling past situations in narrative detail is called episodic memory. You remember when the event happened, where it happened, what was involved, and other context-specific information. These facts come together to form an internal story of sorts.”

When we’re faced with a situation in which the story carries relevant information, we retell it to ourselves to inform our course of action. This happens every day and in every aspect of life, though we don’t always consciously realize it. And the stories we tell ourselves have a huge impact.

I’m okay, you’re okay

Many branches of psychotherapy rely on this technique, encouraging the client to tell his own story, examine it, recover missing pieces, and challenge it in order to discover how the narrative he tells himself affects various aspects of his experience. If he can change the story, he opens the door to change in his life.

Learning is greatly facilitated by story. When we listen to a presentation full of data and bullet points, it activates a certain part of our brain known as the language center, but not much else is affected. It’s a whole different story (pun!) when we are listening to a story.

Photo credit, Josh RiemerAccording to Leo Widrich in The Science of Storytelling, “When we are being told a story, things change dramatically. Not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are too.”

Let’s get on the same page

When we read or listen to a story, our brain behaves as if we were there, undergoing the experience. Remember how in adventure tales when the characters are about to set off on a critical mission, they synchronize their watches? Well, telling stories is a way of synchronizing brains between teller and listener. We are getting on the same page, sharing an experience, relating to each other.

We are literally wired for story. Life often seems like a randomly firing series of events and we struggle to make sense of it. Stories, on the other hand, are crafted on a strong association between cause and effect. We know everything in the story is there on a need-to-know basis, so when something shows up (a cause) we anticipate its effect. Our brains are constantly searching for that relationship, which gives the story meaning and functionality.

Embrace the power of story

Photo credit, Jon TysonMemory speaks in story. A well-told story uses sensory detail to pull the reader into the story world, and memories are often prompted by smelling, hearing, tasting or otherwise having some sort of sensory experience. And that triggers the time machine, sending us into the past where we let the story in our memory unfold, reliving past events in the present moment. Time traveling.

The magnificent H.G. Wells was onto something!

How about you? Think back to your math class story problem days—were you a lover or a hater? Do you see story having an impact in your life? Tell us about it in the comments.


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