Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Gentlemen are Speaking Well of the Gorgonzola

I have heard recently a number of people, who do things related to cultural psychology, literary studies and the artier bits of 'neuroscience', discuss the idea that we like reading or hearing stories because they help us to develop theory of mind. The lecturer in Spanish theatre said that this applied specifically to literary novels, and in a way defined them and set them apart from popular novels, because they expose the empathy between the characters and help us to share it. Thus we grow in an important social skill.

There are clearly other motives for telling and listening to stories.  Whether this is an important one will be determined only by a lot of work in neurobiology, serious anthropology and psycho-linguistics, and we won't have an answer quickly, but the idea has some promise. I cannot comment except to say that I await the results of research with interest.

I was explaining abstract art in 1ºA ESO this morning (12-year-olds). That class can be lively, and they were today at first. I spoke for nearly ten minutes about the distinction between representational and abstract painting, compared it with the use to which elements are more traditionally put in music, and illustrated it with just a couple of slides. Most of this was in English. In some classes I have done it all in English. There was not a sound. Wrapt, they were. It happens that way sometimes. In fact, I know how to exploit it, I've been doing this a long time. Sometimes I tell stories to 6-year-olds, in English, who respond in the same way.

It is clear that they do not understand the whole story. What I was telling them today was not even really a story, and I am by no means an expert in the history and psychology of art. They responded, however, as though a great drama was being played out before them, one so absorbing that they could only hold their collective breath and wait for the ending. And it was true. That drama was me.

More than the words of the story, the drama was my tone, the music of my voice, my body language, the atmosphere that they themselves were unconsciously involved in creating. It is a curious thing to be part of. There is much more to story-telling than stories.


Brett Hetherington said...

I'm pretty sure I know exactly what you're talking about here. I have found it strange how hungry for stories a lot of young people are, especially in this country. (When I was a kid myself I usually found stories from adults tedious and pointless.) It is a very oral (and therefore also aural) culture here. Spaniards are, to my mind, oustanding speakers but love to interrupt when they are adults in a group. Sometimes that's great though because it can encourage the story teller. I taught for 10 years at secondary schools before I came here and realised that I too had the ability to sometimes capture an audience with the often dramatic techniques you mentioned. It certainly is a curious social phenomenon. Literary novels can greatly encourage empathy, I agree. A lovely little post you have done.

CIngram said...

Glad you liked it!

I think there are, and are bound to be, cultural differences in the way adults interact in conversation, including narrative conversation. I have an idea that social conversation among Spaniards is in general more collaborative than among English people. There are more interruptions but they often contribute to building up the sense of narrative rather than breaking the flow.

It could be worth exploring further.