Thursday, September 27, 2012

What are Stories for?

I've been giving some serious thought lately to the question of what stories are truly for. Stories have been a part of human culture since the very beginning. From Gilgamesh to the Iliad, from King Arthur to The Lord of the Rings, we've always told each other stories. And the stories we tell can survive centuries and even millennia. The Trojan Horse, the Knights of the Round Table, these things, passed on in story, have become part of humanity's shared cultural consciousness. They mean more to us than science or history. Much more than entertainment.

There is no doubt that reading stories has a positive effect on our brains. It increases our vocabulary and makes us smarter in many ways. Reading stories also provides an important diversion for our intellect. It's essentially R & R for our brains. And yet, I doubt that these are the reasons that stories have resonated so strongly with the human experience for thousands of years. Probably that stuff is just the icing on the cake, a positive side effect. After all, stories aren't the only way to relax your brain and reading isn't the only way we learn. No, something tells me that the real reason we love stories goes deeper than that.

But there is one thing that stories can help us do like nothing else can. They exercise our imagination. Stories can take us out of ourselves. They let us forget who we are and where we are, just for a while, so that we can experience places and situations that we never could in real life. They let us take risks without being at risk. But most importantly they let us experience what it's like to walk in the shoes of another person, to see things from his or her point of view, to think and feel like another person.
The ability to imagine and thus to empathize is a very important aspect of human nature. But most people seem to underestimate the crucial role that the imagination plays in the act of empathy.

Because it isn't easy to look at the world from someone else's shoes. It's far easier to look at someone's situation from our own shoes and condemn them for not doing what we would have done or not thinking the way we do. Imagination can help us to empathize because a healthy imagination really can see things from another point of view. And stories let us practice this.

This is, I believe, why stories are so integral to the human experience. They are a key part of the process that allows humans to relate to each other in a constructive way and they help us to recognize that there is more to this world than ourselves. They get us out of our own heads in a healthy and risk free way.

That's why it's so important for us to continue always to tell stories and why it's a very noble calling to be a storyteller.


  1. Great way to pass on history or relay a lesson.
    Good to hear from you, Sarah!

  2. "They get us out of our own heads in a healthy and risk free way." Yes! That's why I began reading in the first place. It was safe, and it wasn't familiar.

    Beautiful post, Sarah. :-D

  3. I think that's a good thought, but I think the essential ingredient in stories up until the modern age has always been aspiration. That's still there but not to the same degree. More and more research is showing that that is the connection we make with the protagonist in a story. It becomes a friendship bond and the character becomes someone we try to be like.

  4. Well said. They do help us relate to others and, hopefully, make us more tolerant, imaginative, and even braver.

  5. I think it was summed up well in Arabian Nights - "People need stories more than bread itself. They tell us how to live and why." :)

  6. Beautiful post. I love the power of stories.


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