I recently came across a book called The Story Paradox: How Our Love of Storytelling Builds Societies and Tears Them Down by the US literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall. As an avid advocate of the positive power of storytelling, I was intrigued.

I wanted to learn more so began watching Gottschall’s talks on YouTube. His presentation about The Dark Arts of Storytelling was by far my favourite. During the talk, Gottschall explains how we spend about 8 hours a day daydreaming. While this is hard to study, it is estimated that we have 100 daydreams per waking hour. However, when we are absorbed by a really good story, we experience 0 daydreams per waking hour. Nothing else has this sort of cognitive effect on us which is why Gottschall describes storytelling as a drug, explaining that it creates an altered state of consciousness and a state of high suggestibility.

Thinking about the dark side of storytelling reminded me of the ‘Don’t Die Of Ignorance’ AIDS advert from the 1980s. I was born in the late 80s and while I don’t remember the campaign, I feel that its legacy still shapes the way that HIV and AIDS are viewed today. A few years ago, my friend was diagnosed with HIV. I was shocked at how he was treated, even in hospital. He also had Kaposi’s sarcoma, a rare cancer that commonly affects people with AIDS.  What upset me most was the way he made light of his situation, explaining that it wasn’t all bad as people were much nicer to him when he simply told them he had cancer. While the campaign set out to highlight that anyone could get AIDS, many believe that it stigmatised people with AIDS for being a threat to us all.

With this in mind, I would agree with Gottschall that there is nothing less innocent than a story. The Story Paradox will make me think harder about the wider repercussions of the stories that I tell.

“Stories are the best and most constructive force in the world. And oh yes, they are also the worst and most destructive force in the world.” – Gottschall

Further reading

Podcast

HBR: The Positives—and Perils—of Storytelling with Jonathan Gottschall

Photo by Nong V on Unsplash

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