Sto­ry­telling an evo­lu­tion­ary tool of our hu­man­ity

Mail & Guardian - - Education - Jade Ja­cob­sohn

Au­thor Ur­sula Kroe­ber Le Guin once wrote that “there have been a great many so­ci­eties that did not use the wheel, but there have been no so­ci­eties that did not tell sto­ries”. Which is pe­cu­liar. There is such huge di­ver­sity in the hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence that this con­sis­tent so­cial norm, shared across ev­ery coun­try and ev­ery cul­ture, has fas­ci­nated an­thro­pol­o­gists for decades. Case study af­ter case study, they have shown how sto­ries have been used as tools to shape whole so­ci­eties and their in­ter­ac­tions with the world.

Now, with ad­vances in neu­ro­science, we can see more con­clu­sively that this universal love of the ver­bal art of sto­ry­telling is far more than a friv­o­lous pas­time. Shar­ing sto­ries is an evo­lu­tion­ary tool that al­ters our minds.

I was raised on a sta­ple diet of sto­ries. Clean the child, feed the child, tell the child sto­ries. De­spite my ur­ban up­bring­ing, the ingredients in my sto­ries were earth­ier. The tales that ig­nited my imag­i­na­tion were of desert ele­phants and liv­ing fos­sil plants, of re­al­is­ing that the per­sis­tent sound that woke you came from the scrap­ing of a lion’s rough tongue against the can­vas of your tent while she licked up the morn­ing dew.

My aunt, an an­thro­pol­o­gist, knew the power of sto­ries and their power to build a base of com­pas­sion. She told me tales of strong, no­madic pas­toral­ists who, over years, had be­come her fam­ily. And when I ques­tioned her choices out of ig­no­rance for a world I had never seen, she helped me to un­der­stand through her sto­ries that there are many ways to be in the world and that it’s our ex­pe­ri­ences that in­form how they’re val­ued.

For Brian Boyd, au­thor of On the Ori­gin of Sto­ries: Evo­lu­tion, Cog­ni­tion, and Fic­tion, a story is “a thing that does”, not merely a “thing that is”. When shared with chil­dren they help to build bonds be­tween the teller and the lis­tener. They pro­vide richer, deeper pools of lan­guage and vo­cab­u­lary for chil­dren to draw from. They’re the bi­o­log­i­cal equiv­a­lent of squats and sit-ups for the synap­tic path­ways in the brain. And they can stir the mo­tor cor­tex in ways that put the re­cip­i­ent in the shoes of the per­son the story is about. They sim­u­late in the brain ideas about what life could be like if you were not you, so building kind­ness and em­pa­thy.

It is with some of these sen­ti­ments at heart that, this Septem­ber, Nal’ibali is en­cour­ag­ing ev­ery South African to take part in Story Bosso, its third an­nual mul­ti­lin­gual tal­ent search con­test. This year’s Story Bosso will fo­cus on African folk­tales, and Nal’ibali is us­ing this op­por­tu­nity not only to reawaken a love of sto­ry­telling, but also to pre­serve our tra­di­tional sto­ries with com­mu­nity sto­ry­telling ses­sions and au­di­tions be­ing held across the coun­try. Books and sets of sto­ry­telling play­ing cards fea­tur­ing com­mon folk­tale char­ac­ters will be dis­trib­uted and cash and prizes will be avail­able.

So, let’s get closer to one another this Heritage and Lit­er­acy Month and share our love for sto­ries.

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