Consider this story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn,” attributed to Ernest Hemingway, who allegedly won a $10 a bar bet with other writers, wagering that he could write a shorter story than they could.
Humans are inveterate storytellers, and apparently always have been. Before we could write a story, we drew pictographs on a cave walls.
Our first stories were myths; we then added religious parables and attached a moral at the end of the story. Fables told us how to acquire knowledge or avoid mishaps. Gossip let us know who really was the father of a certain child, maybe one we thought our own.
Jane Austen described subtle strategies for social advancement. Opera turned treachery, adultery and violence into high art. Country-western songs hung stories onto upbeat tunes: “The girls all get prettier at closing time”¦” Videogames let us become stars in our own superhero movie.
Islands are good places for telling stories. Island stories occur within confined spaces; there, isolation creates vivid characters; competition for scarce resources brings out the best and worst in human nature. Communities come together—or don’t. Weather adds drama. Violent intimidation is not uncommon. Long winters and amber spirits produce conditions ripe for tragedy. Lots of sea room there for story telling.
If we don’t have a story at hand we make them up. At night our brains tell us stories while we sleep; many of our night stories—especially those that haunt us—are nightmares.
Our memories are notoriously porous; we fictionalize much of our past. Memoirs have proven to be, especially recently, subject to lawsuits and bitter public humiliations because they have been largely invented.
It turns out that there is now a new branch of science examining the neurobiology of story telling. Not how to tell a good story, necessarily, but how meticulous inquiry is leading us to the notion that stories are innate to our species.
One hypothesis begins with faces. Show someone an image of a pair of eyes—just the eyes—and most of us will resolve them automatically into a face—our brains are hardwired to fill in the details we don’t actually see. Our amygdala then registers what emotion those eyes (or face) are actually signaling: fear, aggression, sadness, allure?
And you better get it right! Mixing up fear and allure can lead to a world of trouble. Trouble, of course, is more likely when the signals are complex and contradictory—like fear and allure mixed up together, say, at a high school dance.
The point is that just as we resolve an abstract pattern into a face, so we unconsciously resolve a sequence of events into a storyline and thus invest the story with meaning. If the story’s meaning has true significance to our life, it will have staying power—not all the twists and turns of a story but usually the one-line version, which gets stored in the memory center of the brain, the hippocampus, to be called up when you need to call up a sequence of events that have been coded with a complicated set of emotions.
“The first island I ever visited changed my life”¦.” This is the beginning of a true story, because I wrote it. But some of the details are a bit hazy even to me.
I can picture the fog, “dungeon thick.” I can hear the patter of rain dripping from shore spruce as their branches combed crystalline droplets from the gray blanket of fog. I can feel the pit of hunger gnawing at my stomach because the lobsterman had not appeared the previous day after I had eaten the last of the food.
I can recall being light headed. I can feel the hair standing up on the back of my neck when a pair of eagles burst out of the fog at eyeball level and I could feel the rush of air off their wings. I can see the cellar hole in the ragged interior of this wild island that I couldn’t get out of my mind, that led me to wonder over the course of many more years: Who had lived here? How had they made a living in such a windswept place? Why did they leave; what had become of them? Trying to answer these questions changed my life.
And as the answers slowly revealed themselves, the sequence of events on a remote island nearly 40 years ago became freighted with meaning. The story told over and over again is the narrative that I use to explain why I spent my life doing what I do.
But did I tell you the one about the raven on the ledge of the outermost island that had a broken wing and what I learned from it?
Philip Conkling is the president and founder of the Island Institute.