S7 E12 | CLIP

The Story of Story

Stories have shaped our knowledge, entertainment, and communications for centuries. As technology advances and the world becomes more interconnected, stories carry greater weight than ever before.

AIRED: July 16, 2021 | 0:16:53

(instrumental music)

- [Narrator] A long time ago,

there lived an earth bound species

who really liked to tell each other

ornate stories.

Yet this, was not merely entertainment

nor enlightenment.

It was the root of their very survival.

You are their descendant.

- [Jim] From ancient cave paintings

through the Bible, Hansel and Gretel,

Harry Potter and Star Wars,

humans have communicated

their biggest most important ideas through story.

And those story provides us with enjoyment.

It's also a powerful tool

that's shaped us

and as times,

and one of the most toxic instruments

for our manipulation.

- So it really is

an extraordinary thing that storytellers do.

And I think what they do,

is they're creating this alternative world

and they're doing it in such a way

that it kind of slips perfectly

to the brains of the readers.

- The idea of conflict,

it grabs our attention.

It could be an inner conflict,

can be an outer conflict,

but as an audience

we're drawn to that,

pay attention to it.

- When I wake up every day

all I'm thinking about stories.

When I walk out the door,

I'm thinking about stories.

Everything I see

is related to story potential.

- [Jim] As a species, we've been telling tales

since before we could talk.

And today our earliest understanding of the world

begins with stories.

As we grow,

other people's accounts and observations of the world,

continue to fill in the gaps

left by our limited direct experiences.

The power of stories to transmit knowledge

and expand our worlds

is something the best-selling author, David Baldacci

came to appreciate at a young age.

- I didn't have the opportunity to travel

as a young person

but I traveled the world through books

and books opened my eyes.

I read about people that didn't look like me,

speak like me, pray like me,

eat like me, dress like me

but we shared this common humanity.

So I'm always trying to understand

other people's perspectives

and ideas and opinions.

- [Jim] Stories are effective,

but on first glimpse

a rather peculiar way to learn.

They aren't exact depictions of reality.

They're intentional distortions of it

that highlight character traits and events

to capture our attention.

The best stories are so effective

at drawing us in

that they bypass our rational brains,

even for skilled storytellers

like Will Storr.

Once upon a time,

not really,

he went to investigate a man

who was counseling people

who thought they were being haunted.

He expected to find a fraud

but he wound up sharing their ghostly encounters.

He documented his experiences

in Will Storr versus the Supernatural.

- Now I understand a bit more

about how the brain works.

Lots of the stuff that I experienced

makes more sense now.

You know, we don't have an unfiltered

experience of reality.

What happens is the information from around the world

hits our senses.

Our senses translate that information

into billions and billions of electrical pulses

and our brain reads the electrical pulses,

a bit like a computer reads code

and builds this world

and tells us it's reality.

And so if you take that machine

and put it in a house

that you're told is haunted,

and you're told

you might feel something touch your skin,

you might hear some breathing,

you know, especially it's night

and you're kind of falling asleep.

It's much more likely

that the things I experienced there

as a result of

the fact that reality itself

is a hallucination anyway.

- There's a great study that has a bunch of shapes

like moving around a screen

and people look at them

and they say, "Oh, you know,

"the square was bullying the triangle, right?"

So we put causal relationships on top

of just a series of events.

- [Jim] In truth, any information we absorb

and use to live our lives, changes us.

Anne Hamby, an assistant professor

at Boise State University

studies the way stories shape,

how we act in the world.

We don't just leap into action for any old story.

It needs to be a pretty good one.

Of course what good means

can sometimes be mysterious.

Most stories that stick with us

follow the same recurring structures are archetypes.

There are seven,

but among the most recognizable are, the quest.

A person sets out on a journey

loses something along the way

and comes back changed.

Overcoming the monster

for good defeats evil.

Rags to riches.

A poor soul is down and out.

He comes into wealth,

but pays a price

and in the end, he's better for it.

Despite their common use

these story formulas

have not bored us over time.

If anything,

they are familiar frameworks

that hold up against

even the most outlandish of tales.

(cartoon playing in background)

Don Harmon uses the scholar Joseph Campbell's

story circle structure as a framework

for his comedic science fiction animated series,

Rick and Morty.

And though it's a factor

in making Harmon's storytelling successful

he also believes

it's an integral part of him as a person.

- I can't turn it off.

That's Joseph Campbell's fault.

Like, because his point was that

there's something ingrained in the species

that makes a certain shape of information

more appealing and digestible

and effective to us.

And once you get that in you,

yeah, you see it everywhere.

I think that living things

have like a little bit of story structure

ingrained in just that idea of like,

by virtue of Darwinian evolution,

we are all alive

because we're genetic descendants

of things that evolved

and story is about

the importance of moving forward.

(instrumental music)

- [Jim] Humans crave predictability and pattern

just as much as we want to learn

and to be entertained.

But most of all,

we want to connect with others.

Poor structure could make a story difficult to follow

but the characters within it

really are the driving force.

- We've got stories all around us.

We're not changing our behavior all the time

or our beliefs all the time

but there are the ones that have this,

this is really sort of the balance

of the art and science,

where you've got

really compelling characters

that people care about

just because they care about the characters, right?

I want to find out what happened

to this person.

- Don't forget your pal, Hildy Johnson.

- We won't forget.

- And when the road beyond and...


- I'm lucky if I know the next paragraph,

let alone the ending.

On my theory is,

if I don't know,

then the reader can't know.

- [Narrator] Jeffrey Archer has been writing long

short and tall tales

for more than four decades.

Readers have devoured

hundreds of millions of his books

around the world.

But even this master weaver

sees his plots as more organic than manufactured.

- [Jeffrey] I had a rhyme going on between

the wicked lady Virginia

in the Clifton Chronicles

and the wonderful Emma.

And of course all the readers want Emma to win.

They don't want the wicked Virginia to win.

And they're in court having a battle.

And I had the best QC in the land

about to beat up Virginia.

And I got up and I wrote the sentence.

And then the next sentence I wrote,

it worked nicely

the Virginia knocked him on the nose.

And after I'd written five pages

of cross-examination she'd killed him.

Virginia won the case.

Emma lost,

the goody lost the case

and the wicked Virginia had won.

So I would say that was a morning

where I had planned to go in one direction

and the first sentence I wrote

sent me into the exactly the opposite direction

and I couldn't resist going with it.

- [Jim] This is storytelling seemingly

at its most natural and magical,

but it isn't anything inexplicable.

What we experienced as the art of storytelling

really comes down to brain science.

At their most basic

stories or descriptions of events

with characters who have goals

who overcome challenges to achieve those goals

and are changed in the process.

When a story draws us into conflict

our bodies release the hormone, cortisol

often described as nature's built in alarm system.

When active it increases our heart rate

and focuses our attention.

In the midst of a well-crafted story

that focus leads us to what is known as

narrative transportation.

- This holistic experience

of suspending your disbelief

in mentally relocating to the world of the story.

I shift the center of my orientation.

So usually I'm looking at my own eyes

at the world around me.

I'm instead in the story world.

- [Will] When you're transported into the story world,

the parts of your brain

which are involved with your sense of self

and what's going on in the here and now

are kind of suppressed

as the story world kind of takes over.

- The characters are the only way

that I can engage the reader

on a human level.

What matters is what's going to happen to

the people in the plot.

I have to make them as real as I possibly can.

- They did a survey lately

recently on my book

on the 10 things that most attracted people

to reading one of my books.

And I thought storytelling would be top

and it wasn't.

Characters were top

and storytelling was second.

- [Jim] Resonant characters and conflict

are also important

because, once those characters

were now rooting for resolve their conflict,

our bodies release another chemical, dopamine.

- [Narrator] This neuro-transmitters

connected with complex thinking,

information retention and pleasure.

When dopamine is present,

we're more likely to remember

whatever we're experiencing at the time.

That's why stories

are such an effective way

for us to learn and remember.

The super power of narrative transportation

is no accident.

It's been formed over millennia of evolution.

For early human communities

the role of the storyteller,

was a faulted one.

As it had the power to bring me

to a sometimes brutally, incomprehensible,

senseless world, important information

to ensure our survival

- Story's democratic.

We don't have to be taught

how to speak in stories.

We have to be taught

how to think in terms of logic.

The stories either caustically

are kind of lessons in life.

You know, not how we become good at certain skills

but how we become better

at the complicated business

of living with other people

and thriving in a community

of kind of conflicting minds.

That's the great challenge of humanity.

That's the difficult thing about being human

is on the one hand we're apes,

we're capable of selfishness and aggression,

but on the other hand

we're very tolerant

and we're very good at working with each other

and kind of almost manipulating each other.

And stories really tell us

how to go about that very difficult business

rather than how to master certain skills

like an instruction manual.

- [Jim] But today our brains

evolved to use story for survival

are surrounded by a forest of narratives

that spread faster than we can process them.

And this makes us prey to manipulation.

As much as we'd like to think

our 21st century lives

are guided by careful analysis of facts

and rational discussion

we really understand the world just as much

if not more through the stories

we hear from the news,

politicians, social media and advertising.

- One of the studies that I've written about

looked at the difference

in reporting of spree killers

and in the West,

the reporting of sprinklers

tends to be, they're a bad person.

They did this because they're evil.

They're terrible, terrible individual.

Whereas the same kinds of crimes

in East Asia are reported very much

that they feed much more contextual information

and it's a bunch more about

they just lost their job,

they had an argument with their wife.

There's all this kind of

morally less satisfying information

you see this pattern and

whereas in the West we're much more about

the individual character.

Are they a good, or are they bad?

Whereas in this stage

they've got much more tolerance

for the kind of ambiguity about this stuff.

- [Jim] And the stories we receive

from the media and public figures

are most effective

when they build on the biases and assumptions

we've learned from previous stories

successfully refuting the assumptions

that align with the stories

we've already absorbed

is a much more difficult task.

- In order to engage our rational mind

we need something to really trip that wire

to trigger it

because it's not our natural way of thinking.

The fact is that on mass,

we are emotional beings.

And if there's a good story that we buy into, right?

You might read this in the news

vaccines cause autism.

Later on I give you a PSA,

vaccines don't cause autism.

Later on I'm going to come back and ask you,

you know, what is the truth here?

And people will say

they can hold both at the same time,

even though you can tell me later on

that you saw a PSA

that said that it did it.

The most effective way

to dispel miss information

or these false stories

is to give people an alternative causal explanation.

So basically if you think about it

like bricks in a wall,

these things are all interconnected.

If I pull out a brick,

I got to plug it with something else.

If I give you another explanation for it.

So if I tell you that the study was false

like there either the authors falsified it

or the data was somehow junk

people remember that, right?

There's a causal explanation.

- [Jim] Understanding how stories manipulate our brains

doesn't dilute their transformative power.

But not all stories

prey on our easily charged emotions

for the sake of manipulation.

Even in our current saturated storytelling ecosystem

they can still bring us together.

They can help us listen to

and understand one another

no matter what our differences are.

Case in point,

3 letters Jeffrey Archer recently received.

- One was from a 12 year old girl in India.

One was from a Queen's council lady,

and one was from a book shop lady.

And the three of them

really couldn't be much more different,

but yet all three

are reading the latest book.

- I think for every book that I've written,

it changes me as a person

because I've taken something very intimate

that I've given a lot of thought to

put it down on a piece of paper

and send it out to people I don't know

all over the world

and they read it and interpret it

however way they want.

- [Jim] But as one paternal character

in a well-known spider centric story

memorably explained,

with great power comes great responsibility.

In a world where more and more stories

compete for our attention and energy

we can't afford to be mere passive listeners.

We need to be critical

of how our stories can bring us together

but also keep us apart.

- One of its sort of really unfortunate ramifications

the story sending brain

is that we don't see our opposites

as people who have sincerely

come to a an alternative conclusion about reality.

We see our opposites

as these kind of heroic enemies.

They're villains, they're evil.

- It's easier to tell

an emotionally evocative negative story.

You know, we're bad is stronger than good.

That's sort of one of our fundamental

like wiring principles.

So if I'm going to go to the negative

and point to threats

it's easier to get or tribe

you know, mobilize a tribe on this negative thing.

- [Jim] One remedy might be

for us to individually expand

the pool of stories we consume.

So one narrative doesn't dominate,

not easy, but also not impossible.

Car commercials, social media posts,

news articles, novels

even rumors or conspiracy theories.

This is the muddy pool of narratives

we've been dunked in.

And we're waiting through this modern day morass

with brains that evolved to grasp

for the stories

that would stop us from drowning.

We are formed by story.

The stories we are told,

the stories we tell

and the stories that are told about us

those we choose to listen to and repeat.

And those we choose to not hear

will in time become the stories

that will be told about us,

of nobility, of heroism,

of kindness and compassion,

of how our rejection of falsehoods,

of divisiveness, of hatred

helped us in our children

and grandchildren to evolve

to become more united, stronger or not.

(instrumental music)

(soft instrumental music)

- [Narrator] Articulate with Jim Cotter

- [Narrator] Articulate with Jim Cotter


- [Narrator] Articulate with Jim Cotter


- [Narrator] Articulate with Jim Cotter


- [Narrator] Articulate with Jim Cotter

(upbeat music)

- [Narrator] Articulate with Jim Cotter


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