The Stories We Tell

A stack with a book and two Kindles

Storytelling is how we connect with others. Much of our communication, and even how we think to ourselves, is done by conveying information through stories. Whether it's why you're late for work or telling someone about a new TV show that's good, you tell stories constantly. Stories are also what allow us to talk about events of other times and places.

It turns out, our ability to tell stories is a distinct skill we learn while growing up. Scientists studying the process of how kids learn this skill identified two particular teaching styles parents subconsciously use to teach their kids the storytelling skill: Elaborative and Repetitive.

Elaborative style parents encourage their children to elaborate. They ask who, what, why, and when questions to draw extra details from their children. They focus on getting as much information as possible out of a child's stories.

Repetitive style parents encourage telling stories in a sparse and reserved way, by getting the correct few key details.

Children unsurprisingly learn to tell stories in the styles their parents use and prefer. Then, in adulthood, people with elaborative story telling styles tend to remember more vivid details about the events of their own lives than those with repetitive styles, who report limited memory of earlier life events.

Our brains both shape and are shaped by how we use them, and I'm beginning to think we're often wrong to assume that certain mental tasks we perform don't affect other mental abilities we've labelled as "not the same thing." For example, I have mused in the past that lying to others could wire you to lie to yourself.

Our memories are unreliable fictions and propagate forward in time as stories we tell ourselves, so hearing that the ability to tell elaborate stories gives us more elaborate memories makes sense.

Our story telling styles also depend on our cultures. We learn to be members of our cultures by telling stories in culturally appropriate ways. An American might be uniquely American because of story styles that focus on individuality, overcoming, and finding the bright side of past life events.

Some African-American households were found to have a heavy emphasis on telling a good story. Good stories are dramatic, engaging, and often flirt with the truth to make a point or impart a lesson. (This can clash with the United States school system's largely European style of emphasis on true facts, causing friction for the child who grew up literally forming memories that make a good story.)

A Chinese person might learn to be Chinese by telling Chinese style stories, perhaps focused on relationship ties and duty to others.

What I've said so far in this post is based on my own memory of listening to lecture 11 of the How We Learn course. Right after hearing the lecture, I was compelled to write this.

Our cultures shape the stories we tell others which shape the memories we form which shape the fundamental way we think about our world. Who we are isn't remotely separate from the world, but is instead forged from all that we do and experience. And that forging process starts from the moment we're born. To me, that's pretty wild.

Photo source.