Telling—and listening—to stories goes back to the dawn of mankind. Before there was writing of course, stories which were often embellished to become more that that—to become narratives—were the only way to pass knowledge from generation to generation. What’s behind the narrative process, and how does the creative use of such matter to you today?
In a recent interview in The Financial Times, author and historian Yuval Noah Harari discusses the premise of his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind. In it he advances the theory that humans have surpassed other species primarily due to our ability to create compelling fictional accounts or narratives. This makes it possible, he argues, for people to band together—to help or fight each other—be it to believe in the possibility of bringing down animals much bigger and stronger in an organized hunt, to the idea of currency, or a cause worth fighting or dying for.
“Any band of Neanderthals, Harari suggests, can raise a few dozen people for a hunt but humans can tell the stories needed to ensure co-operation in groups of 150 or more – numbers large enough to organize mass hunting using prepared traps, raise modern armies, or subdue the natural world.”
The narrative seems critical to our ability to understand and relate to each other as well. For example, a study published last year in Science showed that reading literary fiction helps people understand others’ mental states and beliefs, a crucial skill in building relationships, and certainly part of a healthy “EQ”.
The power of the narrative is also getting the attention of the Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA). The agency’s biotechnology office is studying how the narrative process is critical in how we process events— most notably traumatic ones– and how that impacts post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and can contribute to radicalization as well. “Narratives may consolidate memory, shape emotions, cue heuristics and biases in judgment, and influence group distinctions.”
In other words, narratives can be used for good or bad. Indeed, Nassim Taleb discusses what he calls the “narrative fallacy” in his book The Black Swan at length. We are vulnerable to the seduction of the narrative he argues, and that can result in cognitive biases not the least of which makes us susceptible to the allure of correlation (as opposed to causality) from data mining and big data (particularly relevant issue today). In other words, our minds are desperate to find meaning, and we need to be on guard for that.
The common thread I’m trying to weave with these varied accounts of the narrative process is that without creativity, these narratives (fictional or otherwise) wouldn’t be possible (and therefore be used for either good or nefarious ends). And without imagination on the part of those that listen, they would have no power; creativity and imagination are two sides of the same coin. The creativity of the person writing the narrative is very important of course, but he relies on the imagination of those receiving the narrative, which then, given their capability for empathy and ‘theory of mind’, can understand and co-opt that narrative as their own. It remains a uniquely human capability—at least in this degree of complexity we assume. (Perhaps animals have ways to tell “stories” in a limited way, as has been suggested by observing ants and bees doing a dance to communicate distant food sources etc.)
The famous fax machine analogy also comes to mind: one fax machine is worthless—two have some value and many, a lot of value. But just as that fax on the receiving end has to decode the signal to recreate an image—a facsimile—so does the human imagination decode the narrative. But in the case of humans as opposed to the lowly fax machine, this reconstruction can vary dramatically from individual to individual and be modified as well, adding a special dimension that is unique to them and their experiences. And just as the more fax machines there are is directly and exponentially related to the usefulness and value of the machine (Metcalfe’s law), so does the size of the network of those tapping the creative narrative, and hence the power of social media (and, unfortunately, it’s increasing use by radicalized terror groups.)
Creative Heuristic #2: Use the power of creative narratives for good. Use them to inspire your coworkers, employees, and customers—do so in a way that taps into their imagination and so that narrative becomes in part their own as well.
-Mark HT Ridinger