Born storytellers

“We’re a narrative species,” said the scientist on Radio 4 the other day. “We understand the world in terms of stories.” He was talking about the MMR vaccine and how the stories of danger that have grown up around it have deterred many parents from vaccinating their children against harmful diseases.

Depending on one’s view, one might argue that this is a case where our narrative instinct has not served us well. And of course, stories are used for cynical and manipulative purposes all the time, as we will doubtless be reminded between now and 8 June—just in case the fact of our living in a ‘post-truth’ era should not yet have sunk in.

If we truly are a narrative species, then stories are a fundamental part of our development. They have the power to shape us like nothing else. Nearly twenty years ago I chaired the judging panel for the Scottish Children’s Book Awards. At the ceremony I spoke about the importance of reading fiction. “A child’s imagination is the most precious thing it possesses,” I argued. “You can take away almost everything else, but so long as a child has a healthy imagination, it stands a good chance of surviving, of becoming a reasonably well balanced, thinking individual that will make its way in the adult world.

“And there is nothing—absolutely nothing—that feeds a child’s imagination like good writing. [I spoke of ‘writing’ but I could very well have used ‘storytelling’ instead.] From good writing more than anything else, children gain a sense of right and wrong—because it comes with no strings attached. From good writing they gain an understanding of the world around them, a very real sense that they’re not alone. And so they find the confidence to engage and participate.

“Children who read good writing stand the best chance of rising above the floodtide of cultural mediocrity that threatens to dumb down our society. And they have the means to escape the moral and cultural vacuum that can—at its most terrifying—give rise to events such as we saw recently at the Columbine High School in Colorado.”

That was 1999. Much more recently, the author Neil Gaiman has spoken of how he listened to a talk about the building of private prisons in the United States—a huge growth industry. The prison industry needed to plan how it would grow in future. How many cells would be needed, for example? How many prisoners would there be fifteen years hence? They found they could easily predict what was required by using a simple algorithm based on the percentage of 10- and 11-year-olds that couldn’t read; and certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.

It’s a startling equation, with its suggestion that the absence of stories can create sociopaths. But it’s one that may well make sense to anyone who has watched the face of a child lost in a book. If one could see inside the child, I imagine there would be the glow of wholesome, healthy connections being made between head and heart. The neuroscientific evidence increasingly confirms that stories promote wellbeing and the ability to empathise.

What it doesn’t yet tell us, as far as I know, is whether those connections that take place, those neural pathways that are opened or re-routed when we read or hear stories, can also help us to distinguish between the authentic and the fake. I pray they can. We’ve never needed that ability more than we do today.


There are still places on our summer residential, Life Stories In The Sun, at Cortijo Romero, Spain’s leading alternative holiday centre, 17-24 June.  Join us for a relaxing and nourishing week sharing stories in the glorious setting of the Alpujarras. More information here.

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