The imperative of storytelling Pt 1

‘Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people’ Heinrich Heine

Story has the power to radically change our emotions. The Nazi Party understood the power of storytelling all too well. Hitler himself was completely transfixed by Wagner’s opera Rienzi, inspired by the central character’s determination to free the enslaved populace: “You know, Ley, it isn’t by chance that I have the Party Rallies open with the overture to Rienzi. It’s not just a musical question. At the age of twenty-four this man, an innkeeper’s son, persuaded the Roman people to drive out the corrupt Senate by reminding them of the magnificent past of the Roman Empire. Listening to this blessed music as a young man in the theatre at Linz, I had the vision that I too must someday succeed in uniting the German Empire and making it great once more.”[32].   Thisenrapture with the story eventuated in a lifelong fascination with the composer, but fatalistically, inspired the catastrophic manifestation of Wagner’s nationalistic vigour and extreme anti-Semitic beliefs. On May 10, 1933, the Nazi Party held a public demonstration, where they burned books written by Jews, modernists, socialists and writers deemed un-German in spirit. The exhibition was orchestrated by the Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, who was all too aware of the influence of words inked on a page. Jonathan Gottschall in his excellent book ‘The Storytelling Animal’ articulates it perfectly when he describes the prophetic burning of Heinrich Heine’s book Almansor: ‘… and so they committed a holocaust of undesirable ink people so there would be fewer barriers to a holocaust of real people.’

Melanie Green and Timothy Brock argue in their paper titled ‘The Power of Fiction: Determinants and Boundaries’, that fictional worlds are able to radically alter the way information is processed. They infer that we become emotional slaves to the writer. When we read non-fiction, our emotional shields are up and we become critical and sceptical, but fiction leaves us vulnerable, like naïve children fashionable to the writer’s whim. Ray Bradbury was attuned to this phenomenon, penning Fahrenheit 451, and completely cognizant of the need of a story to warn us against a society devoid of stories.  

But why do we become so defenceless to these emotional sagas? It’s for two reasons: the brain’s architecture, and the dominant theme in most stories.  

Inside the cerebral cortex lies the anterior insula, a section of the brain that plays a large role in cognition and consciousness. It provides us with self-awareness of our own physiology, and is linked to the feelings associated with direct sensations. But researchers found something incredible about this area. When subjects were shown others experiencing feelings of pain and sadness and happiness, the anterior insula reacted in a similar way as though it was experiencing these feelings itself. And voila, an explanation as to why we feel empathy. When we hear a story the anterior insula is activated, which causes us to vicariously experience the emotions offered in the story. We don’t just sympathise with a character experiencing sadness, we empathise with them. We feel it. Sometimes (or lots if you’re me), you’ll cry at sad moments of a story, whether it be in book or film form. You’ll feel genuine happiness when the central character’s conflict is resolved. You’ll feel visceral anger and indignation when injustice prevails. Evolutionary psychologists suggest this is so we are able to learn about these emotions and how to deal with them in a non-confrontational safe way, so that people, and especially children, are exposed to a wide range of experiences and can develop strategies and appropriate responses to the emotion should they find themselves experiencing it at some point in their future.

‘One of the possible negative aspects of the insular cortex is its role in addiction. For example, if one is attempting to quit smoking, environmental cues such as seeing others smoke act as a trigger in the cortex. One’s desire to smoke rises because the cortex expects smoking to follow certain sensory stimulation. This trigger applies to any number of drugs and can make abstaining extremely difficult.’

from here

You may worry that this leaves us in an extremely vulnerable state if such stories are teaching immoral or unproductive lessons, but interestingly, such worry is mitigated by the knowledge that the vast majority of stories tend inherently to be moral arbiters, consistently promoting the demise of negative social behaviour in favour of the cooperative morally right. We tend to have an instinct for what is morally right it seems, and rarely are stories successful without such an outcome. Even in the movie the Joker, despite its violent lead character a seemingly sadistic psychopath, the audience views him as the hero, only because they are privy to the injustices he has experienced over an extended period of time, and so we empathise with his violence, understanding it to be reactive rather than calculated; justice versus injustice.

The power of stories certainly can’t be underestimated, and teachers of every subject and phase have a wonderful opportunity to exploit the benefits they offer. The least of which is the teaching of emotional intelligence.

In a coming series of posts I will discuss the natural unavoidable biological lure of story, and its use in developing cultural literacy, vocabulary, grammatical structure, the development of semantic memory, and lots of other educational connections to the artform. These conversations are part of a book I am writing with Ceridwen Eccles on reading, called ‘Love, and Reading’.   

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more educational and English teaching discussions.


  1. Great discussion
    There is an evolutionary argument that suggests that intelligent animals particularly primates cannot manage a society of more than 70-150 members without conflict. Beyond that humans made the break through with narrative
    A story to control behaviour in large numbers when the leader isn’t present ie religions and ‘isms. We can only survive with narrative but do most damage too


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