August 23, 2012

Horse 1352 - Telling Stories

To illustrate the power of a story, I now relate something which stayed with me a very long time.

I remember in high school, an economics teacher of mine, when discussing supply and demand and substitute goods (actually comparing apples and oranges), was interrupted by a petulant student asking "what about bananas?"
Perhaps to shut the kid up, he said that bananas are a herb (not a fruit and therefore not comparable in this case), and so without question for probably 15 years I believed this to be true.
Botanically speaking, a herb is a plant product derived from the leafy part of the plant. Tea is a herb because tea leaves are leaves. A spice on the other hand is a product which comes from the woody parts, the seeds or the fruit. Coffee which comes from the central pit of the coffee cherry is not only not a bean but is technically a spice.
This brings me back to bananas. Bananas are the fruit of the banana plant and for this reason, are not an herb but if you were to dry out the fruit, they'd be a spice.

The point of me telling this story actually has nothing to do with bananas, herbs or spices but rather with the concept of a story itself.

Memory is a somewhat nebulous thing and even science in all its wonder still is not really entirely sure of the mechanisms by which it is laid down or retrieved. We do know that certain chemicals can inhibit the laying down of memory, and we're also aware that if certain chemical pathways are destroyed or inoperative for whatever reason, memories do not get retrieved.
What we can say for certain is that we're very much more likely to remember a story that raw facts. If I were to give you the list of numbers 177, 6194, 519, 30 and 18,121,605 the chances are that if I asked you to remember them in half an hour are slim to nil, but if I re-order the same digits to 1776, 1945, 1930, 1812 and 1605, those digits now appear as dates and more importantly, the stories which go with them; even if you know very little about each of the stories in question. It is easier to "remember, remember the fifth of November, of gunpowder, treason and plot" than the raw date of 05-11-1605 and maybe even the name of Guy Fawkes who tried to blow up parliament.

There's something fundamental about stories and the way they become part of one's personal narrative. People keep photographs, not only to remember what someone or something looked like but because they're tangible reminders of the past. A photo might hold the memory of a holiday, or when a relative or friend visited.
People often say that if their house burned down, the first thing they'd retrieve would be their photographs. So powerful are photographs at being the touchstones of memory, that sometimes even a wander through an old album will make people laugh and weep.
Sometimes photos hold the collective memory of society, like the photo of the man standing in front of the line of tanks. Granted that people don't to this day know who he was, but the image is so powerful that it became the story.

Stories are fundamental to us because ultimately they tell us either something of how the world works, how we fit into it, perhaps something instructive and how to live better in it.
It is not by accident that the vast bulk of morality teaching, be it found in scripture like the Bible, the Koran, the books of Mormon, in secular literature like Aesop's fables, folklore tales, etc. all take the form of stories. An order such as "do not put your hand in a fire" seems like a pretty straightforward sort of statement but if there was a story in which someone was burned, people tend to learn more from that, then there is the rather obvious statement that experience is the best teacher, but no-one really wants to learn from experience if they don't have to.
On the religious front, Jesus spoke in parables which I have heard described as an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. The point is that these stories have survived for two millennia where as a contemporary like Livy (Titus Livius) who wrote Ab Urbe Conditae, remains in relative obscurity. Livy intended his work as sort of an attempt to use history as a moral essay, where as the parables of Jesus are far more mundane sorts of stories but brimming with more colour. Clearly a story in order to be successful has to be told properly and simply.

When we think of literature which changed the world, few would argue that people like Isaac Newton and John Snow shouldn't be held up on a pedastal but I know few people who have heard of  Principia Mathematica and even less people who have even heard of Joseph Bazalgette, but without them we wouldn't have calculus, discourses on the nature of gravity one hand, or basic stormwater systems on the other. In short, we would not have satellites on which information is transmitted and we would not have sewers which are commonplace and potable water, so you probably would have died of cholera by age 35.
In stark contrast, the works of Shakespeare, Austen and Dickens, still sell in massive numbers, and really all they contributed to the world were stories.
In the late 20th Century and the beginning of the 21st with the rise of computer games, the most successful and highest selling titles are not simulations or even sports games but rather, games where there is a very strong element of story and not just killing off the antagonist.

This takes me back to my economics teacher and bananas. Okay, the story may have in fact been wrong but the truth is that it took another story by way of Bill Bryson's book "At Home", to make me question it. Of all things he was discussing the role that spices had in the development of the kitchen in people's houses and mentioned off-hand what a spice was. This made a connection in my mind to a story which had been laid down in my memory some 17 years ago and had laid dormant.

The point being that without the story in the first place, I probably wouldn't have remembered something even if it did happen to be wrong and so I suppose that there was even a degree of utility in a wrong story than had there been no story at all.

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