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Food for the Poor Godspy.com: Faith at the Edge


John Murphy | 09.22.08


Secrets of storytelling

Having just read a collection of masterful short-stories by Tobias Wolff, the issue of what makes storytelling such an intrinsic, necessary part of the human condition has been at the forefront of my mind. An article in the most recent issue of Scientific American approaches this age-old question from a left-brained perspective:
“Popular tales do far more than entertain. Psychologists and neuroscientists have recently become fascinated by the human predilection for storytelling. Why does our brain seem to be wired to enjoy stories? And how do the emotional and cognitive effects of a narrative influence our beliefs and real-world decisions?”

Storytelling is a universal impulse, and the best stories from various cultures are able to transcend boundaries of geography and time: think of Homer, Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky. So what essential function does storytelling serve? Research suggests that those who feel ‘transported’ by a story perform better on empathy tests—the ability to ‘walk a mile in another’s shoes,’ as the saying goes. Certainly the fact that Christ chose to impart moral lessons in the form of parables proves the redemptive nature of storytelling: sympathy is the beginning of understanding and a path to love. 

In scientific terms, this could be more prosaically translated: “Stories are an important tool for learning and for developing relationships with others in one’s social group. And most scientists are starting to agree: stories have such a powerful and universal appeal that the neurological roots of both telling tales and enjoying them are probably tied to crucial parts of our social cognition.”

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TOPICS:    brain | cognition | empathy | love | storytelling

By cartesian coordinates AT 09.24.08 06:08PM Not Rated

cartesian coordinates

This reminds me of efforts to understand the biological bases of humans’ love for music. In This is Your Brain on Music, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin posits that music, rather than being a “spandrel” (byproduct) of evolution as some scientists suggest, preceded language and probably served several functions, including display of sexual fitness (e.g., women, when in their peak stage of fertility, are generally more drawn to creative than financially affluent men, perhaps because they display resourcefulness such that they have “time to waste” on developing creative skills); social cohesion (the modern concert and jam session being an extension of the ancient “dancing and singing around the campfire”); and cognitive development (higher IQs, heightened spatial skills, and greater abundance of “mirror neurons” in musicians). And like stories, music is universal and prevalent among all cultures, and perhaps even among other species - as the “singing” of songbirds.

I remember Ennio Morricone described melody as “dialogue with God.” To me, a good movie or book (whether of Dickens, Tolkien, or Peter Weir) feels like reading, or rather sensing, the mind of God.

By John Murphy AT 09.24.08 07:06PM Not Rated

John Murphy

Beautifully put, Cartesian. Certainly Morricone’s music for “The Mission” is a rapturous dialogue with God (though his scores for “Untouchables” and “Once Upon a Time in the West” aren’t shabby either). And the films of Peter Weir? Don’t get me started on the beauty of “Fearless” or “Picnic at Hanging Rock”....

By Debra Murphy AT 09.24.08 11:25PM Not Rated

Debra Murphy

A recent viewing of the good-but-not-great made-for-TV adaptation of NOSTROMO, with a soundtrack by il Maestro that surpassed the production,  made my daughter Rachel and I daydream about a film production which would 1) be scored by Morricone, one more time 2) star Javier Bardem as Nostromo, and 3) be directed by Weir, the only man alive, perhaps, who could do the film justice since Lean died while planning it.

Or Malick? Or Mel?

Anyway, there are some artists that don’t realize (yet) that they’re actually Catholics.

P.S. Weir has an infallible ear for transcendent music…e.g., his use of the middle movement of the Beethoven concerto in at least two movies, and Fantasy on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (Vaughan Williams) in his most recent MASTER & COMMANDER.

By GTN AT 09.27.08 03:38AM Not Rated


What is creation but a story on both a very grande scale, and a very intricate level.

By sohail AT 12.18.09 09:34AM Not Rated


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