Monday, August 15, 2005

King Story

As far as I know, there hasn't been much new thought on how to approach the future since that flood of study and books in the 1960s and 70s I wrote about last time . But a growing appreciation has been developing of the role of stories. No longer dismissed as frivolous entertainments and childish fantasies, stories have emerged as vitally important in the most basic ways.

Storytellers always knew this. "Once philosophy was stories, religion was stories, wisdom books were stories," fictionist Ronald Sukenick wrote in the 1970s, "but now that fiction is held to be a form of lying, even by literary sophisticates, we are without persuasive wisdom, religion, or philosophy."

But soon the various roles of story were being discovered by other disciplines. Psychotherapist Robert Coles used literary stories to teach in medical school, because narrative raised issues in a particularly meaningful way, and then in his practice, because patients identified with characters and felt that someone else had felt what they felt. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum used literary stories to teach in law school, because they dramatized public issues and infused them with real human experiences and responses.

They all found that stories unlock empathy, and inspire the moral imagination. But others began to see even more basic functions for story. Neuroscientists realized that human memories are stored in stories, and soon, that all thinking involves stories. "Narrative imagining-story-is the fundamental instrument of thought," writes Mark Turner, a neuroscientist, cognitive scientist as well as a Professor of English. " Rational capacities depend on it. It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, and of explaining."

"Knowledge is stories," wrote Roger C. Shank, former director of Yale's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Narrative is explanation, and explanations are narratives. So in the age of science, writes William Irwin Thompson, "Science is the storytelling of our time. By telling stories about our origins, from the big bang to the African savanna, science is really telling stories about what and where we are and where we want to go from here."

But not all stories are created equal. As we know, some stories are better than others. That becomes clear when we go back to the future.

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