Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Value of Stories

The August-September issue of SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN MIND contains an article on the importance of storytelling. Benefits of stories for human beings include expanding the capacity for empathy and learning how to function in social groups. One psychologist suggests that stories "may act as 'flight simulators' for social life."

Among the traits of people with a strong appreciation for stories, one study "found that students who had more exposure to fiction tended to perform better on social ability and empathy tests." This finding surprised me. One authority quoted in the article acknowledges that the way "stories can enhance social skills by acting as simulators for the brain. . . may turn the idea of the socially crippled bookworm on its head." This finding is indeed counter-intuitive to the popular conception of writers and avid readers as introverted and (given a choice) solitary, a stereotype that certainly applies to me. I've always considered myself socially awkward, also, as we daydreaming writer types are generally assumed to be. In fact, I read somewhere that writers are, paradoxically, similar to dancers in that both kinds of artists compensate for lack of skill in communicating directly with people by communicating through our creative endeavors instead.

Of course, there's the old-fashioned oral tradition type of storyteller, spinning tales around a campfire. But that, too, seems to me different from free-flowing, everyday interpersonal interaction—definitely more structured. (I’m reminded of a character in the cartoon series ARTHUR who’s shy in his own persona but outspoken and fluent through the voice of his ventriloquist dummy.) Does the image of the socially adept storyteller, or story appreciator, ring true for you?

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