The power of storytelling needs no introduction. Stories are the intergenerational links that keep culture alive and transcend our existences beyond the biological reactions that hold us together. Stories make us multidimensional creatures — human in the truest sense.
They also allow us to transmit information that cannot be communicated through charts or graphs. We’ve used stories to shape and build perspectives, assemble and dismantle beliefs and influence and control behaviors over the course of history. But what happens when stories (plural) become story (singular), and a host of intersectional narratives and stories are reduced to one facet of an individual’s identity? While the power of storytelling can be explained by basic neuroscience, its tremendous effects on our perception and understanding of the world are the result of sociology. But both of these elements provide insight as to why propagating a single narrative is dangerous, specifically with regard to today’s sociopolitical climate.
Storytelling is powerful because it incites emotion and empathy. Words — when presented as facts or information — are processed by regions in the temporal lobe called Broca's area and Wernicke’s area. Here, words are simply decoded into their meaning. When strung with emotions and distinct imagery however, the brain behaves completely differently. Then, the sensory cortex is activated. As a result, multiple regions of the brain are utilized in processing a story. Word choice and rhetoric can all influence the extent to which information is processed in our brains, making it more important to deliver comprehensive, multidimensional stories that are representative of people, and not just the idea of them. The power of storytelling lies in the fact that narratives capture our hearts by first attracting our brains. As they continue to be processed in multiple cortexes, they stick with us forever.
The pitfalls of this phenomenon emerge when we misuse it. While some may know that these stories are fake or misrepresentative, our subconscious may believe them to be real, which in turn influences how we perceive and behave.
As celebrated author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie artfully describes, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” Each individual life contains a heterogeneous mix of stories. If people are reduced to one, they are stripped of their humanity.
Though this point was made nearly 10 years ago, the notion of perpetuating a single story is relevant amid the current political climate, specifically with the platforms of President Donald Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Both have systematically reduced the complexities of the American political landscape by either fixating on the perils of the “other” or on the tyranny of the banks. Both candidates have essentially disregarded storylines that complicate the core stance they are assuming and contribute to a larger political issue linked with civility. Polarization limits our ability to understand how multiple narratives about issues from immigration to universal health care may be simultaneously true.
The value of multiple narratives is that the stories begin to form an interconnected web and offer dimensionality to complicated issues. They allow us to see a larger picture, one that is beyond any individual discourse or opinion. Civility requires individuals to take each other and the narratives they bear seriously, to be perceived as fully realized global citizens with identities, needs and beliefs that deserve to be accommodated. Stories come with an immense neurological power, one unlike any other method of communicating information. As a result, those with the privilege of presenting other peoples’ stories are morally bound to do so representatively.
When narratives are solidified as the ubiquitous norms, or policies of society, there is a cascade of effects unleashed in the form of bias, prejudice and discrimination, which becomes exceedingly difficult to overcome. While individuals can renounce their prejudices, they are inevitably vulnerable to the habits of the mind. Intentions are not impact, and ultimately, what is neurally engrained is achieved. One-dimensional stories are often rooted in biases, and when consistent, they help shape prejudiced mindsets. When these are the only narratives that are represented systemically, they become acts of discrimination that are passed down to further generations.
The molecular mechanism of storytelling demonstrates just how powerful stories can be. It is a uniquely human ability that we have, and when given the opportunity to represent stories systemically, it is important to make sure that we are encompassing of a variety of different dimensions.
Divya Gumudavelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.