The stupid power of stupid stories

WHY IS THIS SO INTERESTING?!?! One of Kieran Egan’s major emphases is how tremendously foundational stories are for human cognition. Almost anything, it seems, can be understood more readily if we put it in the form of a story.

Why this is complex and fascinating — stories seem to sit in the nexus of culture and biology. At some point, I’d like to unpack some of this here.

For now, I’ll just relegate myself to (ha!) a simple story. A week ago, my family took a camping trip out to the San Juan Islands, off the Washington coast. It was an excellent trip, all in all, but the drive back home was a little vexing.

James, my three-year-old, was kvetching in the back seat — he had been cooped up far too long — and I decided to distract him with some of the cool studies on crow intelligence that had been done recently at the University of Washington, from which I recently graduated.

I put on my super-excited-distract-the-kid voice:

“JAMES! Some people wanted to SEE how SMART CROWS were! So they went to the CROWS’ NESTS and…”

Epic fail. James’ attention was barely pricked, and he fell back to whining and violently thrusting his toy airplane around the car.

I remembered the cognitive primacy of simple stories, and abased myself, this time in a more measured tone:

“James! Once there was a crow named — erm — ‘Crowster.’”

Attention: snagged.

“And one day he saw a human walking toward his nest.”

It was amazing — in teen argot, “stupid” — how immediately he paid attention, and how perfectly he maintained it. (And, for that matter, how frustrated he was when, for purposes of navigation, I had to break off the story a few minutes later.)

(Fuller accounts of these studies on crow intelligence, incidentally, can be found at the New York Times and at this TED talk. Neither uses simple stories, or, alas, the character of, erm, “Crowster.” They’re still pretty great.)

I don’t want to press this too far: anecdotes featuring one’s child are perhaps the lowliest form of empirical evidence. But this seems to illustrate something broader: stories are magic.

Stories are a format our minds (innately? culturally?) are biased to pay attention to, and to remember. We are the storytelling animal, par excellence. (Take that, dolphins!)

Stories even factor into the System 1 / System 2 division. Daniel Kahneman writes, in Thinking, Fast and Slow

A sentence is understood more easily if it describes what an agent... does than if it describes what something is, what properties it has.... The mind — especially System 1 — appears to have a special aptitude for the construction and interpretation of stories about active agents, who have personalities, habits, and abilities. (p. 29)

Well, well.

A few questions seem to arise for we who wish to design a new kind of school:

  • How can stories enrich all the disciplines, not just (say) literature and history?
  • How can we design the curriculum so that these stories connect up with and support each other?
  • What are the limits of stories? Are there situations when a story is exactly what a student doesn’t need to understand something?