The Act of Storytelling

Posted on: December 5th, 2017 by Jason Jacobs

“Why do all of us want to hear stories? Why do some of us want to tell them? Why, for that matter, are all of you even here tonight, huddling in the darkness with a bunch of total strangers, staring at me for well over two hours, listening to me talktalktalk?”

-John Lithgow


Stories By Heart invites us to consider our primal relationship with storytelling.

As we huddle in the darkness of the American Airlines Theatre, we are connecting to an ancient tradition, like our cave-dwelling ancestors gathered around the fire. Storytelling predates the invention of writing and print, and it can take forms of poetry, song, dance, and masks. Across cultures, storytellers serve diverse roles, from leader to spiritual guide, historian to shaman, healer to jester. The common thread, according to Dr. David Leeming in Storytelling Encyclopedia: Historical, Cultural, and Multiethnic Approaches to Oral Traditions Around the World, is a human obsession with narrative that transcends culture and time. The question of “why” has invited explanations from anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, and scientists.


Our Brains on Stories

Our brains are wired to think in narrative, linking events through cause-and-effect, and we learn better when information is transmitted through stories. When we are curious, emotionally engaged, concerned about what happens next, making predictions, we produce neurotransmitters that allow the brain to change. This explains why the Bible uses stories rather than lists or bullet points to engage and teach.

Humans need to connect with each other, and stories develop our capacity for empathy.  Neuroscience now understands the role of “mirror neurons,” which are activated in the brain when we hear stories. We may not feel a physical sensation of pain when the hero of a story hero is hurt, but mirror neurons allow us to process emotional experiences in fiction as if we they were happening to us. Through this mirroring, we “put ourselves in another person’s shoes.” Our capacity for empathy may give us a long-term evolutionary advantage.


Survival of the Fittest Storytellers?  

From a biological and evolutionary perspective, our capacity to tell and listen to stories helped the human species to advance. Stories allow us to prepare for life-threatening situations from a position of safety. They simulate potential crises, which we can virtually experience while listening from a secure place. In Origin of Stories, Brian Boyd explains how fiction and the arts are important forms of “high play.” Just as animals chase and tussle, safely practicing how to react in actual life-threatening situations, stories prepare us to process important patterns, images, and social information. Jonathan Gottschall, in The Storytelling Animal, notes the centrality of “trouble” in stories. Fiction is driven by conflict and struggle, which allows our minds to simulate threatening events, removed from the actual risk. This virtual experience may prepare us to react better when real trouble arises.

Gotschall also asserts the value of storytelling in teaching us to cooperate within social groups, and this social bonding contributes to our long-term survival as a species. He posits that, across cultures, humankind is attracted to stories with a positive moral viewpoint. Stories with protagonists who are rewarded for honesty and playing by group rules show us the collective benefits of prosocial behavior. By promoting our capacity for cooperation and creativity, storytelling has helped humans to advance.


Stories are Good For You

Native American people have long recognized that storytelling has a beneficial impact on both individual and communal wellness. Through characters that model both positive and negative behaviors, tribal stories help promote introspection and convey essential values, including self-respect and health. While Native Americans have honored the power of stories to preserve cultural traditions for centuries, a 2002 study showed a correlation between storytelling and individual health. To test the impact of storytelling on heart disease and cancer in tribal communities, stories were selected to motivate tribal members to make healthier lifestyle choices. The researchers concluded that “storytelling becomes a powerful adjunct to health education.”

By helping us understand the world, prepare for threats and danger, connect to culture, learn about cooperation and collaboration, and work through our darkest fears or strongest desires, storytelling helps us survive and thrive. For thousands of years, whether in fire-lit caves or Broadway theatres, we still come back for more stories.



Australian Aborigines

Australian Aboriginal

Aboriginal cultural heritage goes back between 50,000 to 65,000 years and is today still passed on mostly through oral storytelling, song, and dance. Stories of “The Dreaming,” which describe the travels of the spiritual ancestors, are central to the Aboriginal belief system. Dreaming stories pass on important knowledge, cultural values, and beliefs from one generation to the next and are told progressively as people age in life. Through these stories, contemporary Aboriginal people maintain a link to ancient times.


Griots (griottes for women) originated in highly stratified West African societies. Their traditional role was preserving the memory of their societies, and this included taking on the job of genealogist, historian, spokesperson, diplomat, musician, teacher, master of ceremonies, and advisor. Griots held a unique social caste; their work was seen as a service, particular to the nobility and richer members of the community. The male griots used spoken word and musical instruments, while the female griottes specialized in singing. Contemporary griots still use storytelling, performance, music, and art to embody and pass on history.



The Grimm Brothers

Many of the fairy tales beloved today (think Cinderella, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood), were originally collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in the early 19th century. The brothers collected oral German tales from people throughout the countryside in an effort to preserve a communal volk (folk) culture that was disappearing with modernization. They intended to capture the natural language of the people and understand the customs, rituals, and beliefs that bonded communities. After publishing the tales, which were crude and often violent, the Grimms began to revise and polish the stories, inserting Christian morality and making them more appropriate for children.



John Lithgow: Stories by Heart begins performances at the American Airlines Theatre on January 11, 2017. For tickets and information, please visit our website

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2017-2018 Season, John Lithgow: Stories by Heart

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