Storytelling: A Double-Edged Sword

There once was a village decimated by war. A war its people didn’t ask for. After four years, the killings ended, but the devastation had only just begun. Those who survived were left standing on the streets for hours waiting for their only chance at a meal. In one of those lines scattered around the village was a woman, holding her son against her chest as he cried silently from the pain of his hunger. 

The war had taken her father, her brothers and her husband, leaving her alone in a world she no longer recognized. All she could do was to keep her son safe, and even that became more impossible by the day. As hours passed and the Sun began to set, someone announced that the food had run out. The line quickly became a rabid mob of starving, prideful people shouting and demanding food for their families, fighting over what few scraps they could get their hands on. But the anger only masked the cause of their real pain: They had failed their families.

This humiliation, this shame boiled over into violence around her. She watched her son cry, but there was nothing for her to do but push through the writhing mass. Fists landed on her back, her ribs, her skull. Ringing filled her ears and the sharp sting of teeth through flesh filled her mouth with what can only be described as the bitter taste of dread. She collapsed to the ground, still clutching her son to her chest. He’s no longer crying. Too shaken to check for his breath as the fight continued above her, a silent sob escaped her lips. This is not you,” a voice called, strong enough to pierce through chaos like a wildfire burning on a stormy night. “This is not us. We are better than what they have forced us to become. They want us to fight each other, when it is them we should be fighting. They are the enemy. And they must be destroyed.” 

What did this story make you feel? Sadness? Anger? Fear? Why do you feel that way? This isn’t your story. These aren’t your problems, your emotions. This is fiction set in a time you do not know, about a woman and a child you have never met, in a situation you have most likely not experienced yourself. So, why then, do you feel so strongly for them? Why do you empathize? Why did you sense her pain? Her suffering? Her hunger? 

Recall the last line for a moment. The voice that called out in the darkness. Did it give you a feeling of relief? Of hope? A sense that maybe someone could help them? Did you feel like part of the “we” and angry at the “them”? Again, I ask, why? You know nothing about the man speaking, what his values are or who he means by “we” and “they”. He could be a freedom fighter raging against an oppressive exploitative ruling class. Or maybe he was the man with the Brown Shirt who “offered” salvation to the German people. A man whom you just supported because of the narrative I made about his life. This is the power of a story. It can transform even the most villainous of men into heroes and turn stories of war into that of liberation. 

Humans are incredible at pattern recognition, and that is one of the reasons stories are so powerful. We’re able to make connections between the words and ourselves, between its world and ours. We become emotionally engaged with the characters and it’s almost like we’re there, experiencing it alongside them.  This is what psychologist R.J. Gerrig defined as narrative transportation. Using mirror neurons, our brain takes experiences and emotions we’ve had and maps them onto the experience of the character, so we feel for these people, even when we haven’t been in the exact same situation. Not everyone knows the pain of starvation or the oppressive nature of a post-war society, but everyone knows the feeling of not being able to get something you need. Not everyone fears for the death of their child, but everyone knows the pain of losing someone forever. 

A study by Princeton professor of psychology and neuroscience Uri Hasson showed the electromagnetic signals of the narrator actually sync to the brain of the listener. This, the neurochemical expression of empathy, is why we connect so tightly to stories, why they spur us into action - even when it might not directly affect us. All of this begs the question, what exactly is a story and why did we start telling them in the first place?

To the nomadic bands of humans in the untamed wilds from time immemorial, stories had practical social use. Professor Paul J. Zak discovered that compelling narratives cause the release of oxytocin, which acts as a motivator, a trust builder and promotes cooperation between people - essential things needed for any civilization to survive. These fables also taught social values, lessons of survival, spiritual beliefs and historical truths. Before written records were kept, stories preserved history.  

If you’ve been wondering whether the words “story” and “history” have anything to do with each other, well they do. In fact, those two words meant the same thing until around the 16th century. And this non-distinction is not only present in the English language. “Moʻolelo” is the Native Hawaiian word for story, but it also means history, legend or tradition. It comes from two words, mo’o, meaning succession, and olelo, meaning language or speaking. So, in its most basic sense, mo’olelo and story both mean “succession of speaking”, since all stories were told before humans started writing. 

These legends and myths that propped up in ancient cultures throughout time were intertwined and inspired by historical fact and developed by the people who told them, adapting to the needs and goals of the culture over time. These stories connected the teller and the listener to a larger sense of humanity, allowing them to imagine a world beyond the dangers of their daily lives. 

Since the industrial revolution, storytelling has moved away from that immediate, in person, interpersonal bridge. As society has become more individualized, the way we create and consume stories has moved in the same direction. Look at our internet culture. Our collective attention span has been shortened by micro-content mediums like TikTok and Twitter. We’ve reduced stories to bite-sized clips of audio or text, forcing it to be trimmed down to its most essential form to get caught in an algorithm. The fact that you’re still watching this video _ minutes in, shows just how much you love stories. But the rest of the world? It’s hard to tell. So, is storytelling dying?

No. Not at all. It’s evolving. Because that’s what humans do. We evolve. Whether short or long, first or third person, stories today still have the same purpose they did thousands of years ago - to teach us how to navigate the extraordinary circumstances of our own lives, to remind us that we are not alone in our experiences and to connect us to a larger humanity. Sadly, there is a divide between people who use this infinite opportunity for connection to gain perspective and expand their imagination, and those who use it instead to reinforce the notion they already have. And no matter how wrong that idea is, there will always be a narrative that reinforces it. 

Think back to the woman I spoke about at the beginning of this video and the “savior” at the end. Tales like that were used to defend the Führer and his tyrannical regime. This is the danger of stories that we must consider. While they can be used to empower, they can also be used to enrage or paralyze. We refer to this as propaganda - the power that the elites use to build and destroy nations, to discount and disempower entire populations. And this is not just a thing of the past.

The Western world tells a story of white supremacy, one that imagines Europe as the main character, with billions of people only acting as villains or helpless victims,  not as complex characters with their own thoughts, beliefs and emotions. When we are consistently told a single story, from a single perspective, there is little room left for us to imagine anything else. Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said in her 2009 TED talk, “Show a people as only one thing over and over again, and that is what they become.”

When narratives are left in the hands of those in power, they alone decide what people are in the eyes of the rest of the world. And that is a scary reality. A reality that the world lived in until the creation of the internet. Thanks to the world wide web, we can finally see beyond the limitations of the narratives we are told. We have the option to operate past the version of reality that is imposed on us by structures of power. There is no longer a single source telling us who we are and what we are to become. Everyone has become their own storyteller, because we all have a story to tell. Online, Africans can tell about the beautiful creations of their ancestors that lie in European museums today. Native Americans can speak about their heritage and how it influenced the country built around them. The Māori people can share their songs and dances to the entire world. Everyone has become their own storyteller, because we all have unique stories to tell. 

We talk about everything from the mundane in our everyday lives to superheroes saving the world from fictional extinction. We watch documentaries and bio pics, we read memoirs and autobiographies, we follow vloggers and the stars of reality shows as they document every second of their day, because we crave the experience of knowing what the world is like through the eyes of other humans. Because when everything seems to be crumbling around us, we find solace in knowing that we aren’t the only ones trying to figure it out. 

Social media may have forced storytelling to change, but in doing so, it created an opportunity for connection and understanding in a way the world has never seen. In less than 60 minutes, you can watch 5 films about 4 creators in 3 different continents, each with their own 2 cents about this 1 planet we all call home. And the 0 sum of a story will always be just that, no matter how or when it's told.