Кендалл Хевен, Story Proof
Results from a dozen prominent cognitive scientists and developmental psychologists have confirmed that human minds do rely on stories and on story architecture as the primary roadmap for understanding, making sense of, remembering, and planning our lives—as well as the countless experiences and narratives we encounter along the way. Lives are like stories because we think in story terms, make sense out of experiences in story terms, and plan our lives in story terms.

Storytelling (orally telling a story to a live audience) is one—but only one—means of communicating a story.

Stories are supposed to be enlivening as well as enlightening, energizing as well as thought provoking. I have tried to maintain that outlook while writing this book about stories.

In the beginning there were stories. Then came language to express story concepts. Then came written language with its grammar and syntax. Only much later did other narrative and expository forms emerge.

One way to look at it would be to say that there exists more than one kind of story. However, this approach always leads to confusion and muddies—rather than clarifies—the meaning of the word, story. Another way is to admit that not all things written in narrative form are stories. Some are. Some aren’t.

Research now supports the contention that story predates human language. Language was created to express stories.

In researching this book, I have read over 100,000 pages of research.

People are eager for stories. Not dissertations. Not lectures. Not informative essays. For stories. No one lines up outside the library to be the first to check out the latest doctoral dissertation. No, it’s stories we crave, even though the dissertation may well have more beneficial information and more lasting value for our lives. Such expository narratives feel like bitter medicine. Stories feel like candy.

The great philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1964) said, ‘‘A man is always a teller of stories. He lives surrounded by his own stories and those of other people. He sees everything that happens to him in terms of stories, and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it.’’

Fish don’t understand water because they are forever immersed in it and have no other experience, no other reference point, with which to compare ‘‘water.’’ We can’t feel or sense gravity because we have never been without it. It is difficult for us to look at ‘‘story’’ because stories are so interwoven into the fabric of our lives and minds that we can’t step far enough away from our storied world to view stories objectively.

Zaltman (2003) pointed out, ‘‘The similarity of store and story is not a coincidence.’’ Stories are our universal storehouse of knowledge, beliefs, values, attitudes, passions, dreams, imagination, and vision.

Story is not the information, the content. Story is a way of structuring information, a system of informational elements that most effectively create the essential context and relevance that engage receivers and enhance memory and the creation of meaning.

Taylor (1996) adroitly noted, ‘‘Facts, theories, and reason alone do not stand a chance against a story because facts and reason ultimately depend on story for context and relevance and meaning—and, thus, for their power. Objective data always require interpretation and perspective in order to yield fact. Those require story.’’

A small irony: English, the largest language on Earth, has a remarkable dearth of vocabulary words to describe narrative structures of the language, itself. It is akin to the situation we would have if we had only one word to describe precipitation.

Good stories and effective stories are stories. The others are called stories only by default because we lack vocabulary labels to individually describe and define them.

Literary critic Northrop Frye (1957) observed, ‘‘We have no word for a work of prose other than ‘story,’ so story does duty for everything, and thereby loses its only real meaning as the name of a specific genre, or structure of narrative.’’ We have lots of words for specific subcategories of story—tale, fable, myth, legend, fairy tale, folk tale, parable, por qua story, epic, snippet, humorous, tall tale, farce. We have no other word than story for the subcategories of narrative.

In other words, the brain converts raw experience into story form and then considers, ponders, remembers, and acts on the self-created story, not the actual input experience!

The mass of humanity has learned to read and write only in the past few hundred years. Logical, expository, and argumentative forms first emerged perhaps 5,000 years ago. But humans have been telling stories for 100,000 years or more. Evolutionary biologists tell us that 100,000 years of story dominance in human interaction has rewired the human brain to be predisposed before birth to think in, make sense in, and create meaning from, stories. For more on this important concept see Nelson (2003), Donald (1991), Plotkin (1982), Tomasello (1995), Bruner (1990), or Pinker (2000). Many researchers have studied the reactions and mental processes of babies. Their work has confirmed that, at birth, humans think in story terms. Bruner’s (1990) long years of clinical studies have shown that we are born preprogrammed to search for, and to create meaning from, story elements.

Babies arrive predisposed to focus on characters and their behavior. At birth babies can discriminate human faces and voices from other sights and sounds (Gopnik et al. 1999). In the first few months of life—many months before they develop language—babies learn to evaluate, observe, understand, and emulate the details of human emotional behavior. Let’s summarize the brain’s story-related development as reported in the research. At birth, babies know to link voice with face and to study facial expression and emotion (character traits). 

By one year, they understand sequential actions and canonical (normally expected) behavior. They have mastered the general concepts of goals and motives. They have learned to look where others point, and to point where they want others to look. This implies that they understand wants (having you look at what they want you to look at) and to act (point) to satisfy those wants. It also implies that they understand that you think and process as they do so that they can expect you to respond to their action as they want you to. 

By eighteen months babies understand desire, goals, conflict in the name of goal pursuit, and cause-and-effect sequencing and connections between events. By two years they become empathetic (character understanding) and understand ‘‘trouble’’ as a deviation from accepted or expected norms. Just as their verbal skills are emerging, story structure is already firmly locked into their thinking. Gopnik concluded his research by saying, ‘‘The baby’s computers start out with a specific program for translating the inputs they get into accurate representations of the world and then into story-based predictions and actions’’ (Gopnik et al. 1999).

Bransford and Stein (2003) stated, ‘‘Experience builds structures of the mind by modifying structures of the brain.’’ The steady diet of stories that children experience modifies the brain to render it more predisposed to think in story terms. Kotulak (1999) stated: ‘‘Things that a child experiences become part of his mental architecture, laid down in the neural connections that are retained. Connections that are not reinforced by stimuli from the outside world are pruned away, dead branches that no longer flower.’’

Minds compare new input to data (experiences, thoughts, interpretations) already stored in the brain, interpret and understand the new information, and create meaning from it.

The goal of the mind is to sift through the constant bombardment of inputs and interpret and evaluate each so that it can decide: Should I pay attention? If so, how does it relate to me? Within what context can I place this information? What does it mean to me? Should I remember it?

Because the mind uses hardwired, fixed templates (neural maps) to guide this construction process, the mind is willing to create any missing bits of key information in the raw input.