Tuesday, June 28, 2011

FAMILY HISTORY -- The Power of Stories

Lessons from Neurolinguistics --
The human brain cannot deal with randomness.  It seeks patterns through which to organize perceptions of the world.  The sciences of neurolinguistics, psycholinguistics, and cognitive linguistics seek to understand the neural substrates and processes by which our brains organize the information we extract through our senses.  Many of my friends have devoted their lives to understanding these processes.  I am about to oversimplify volumes of research, but hope to convey an accurate sense of their work.  If readers want to learn more, I have included a list of links to lead the curious to more information.

Our brains are not built to retain and access random information.  Therefore, our brains organize the incoming information in several “universal” ways (common to all members of our species). Among our most powerful organizational tools are “categorization” and “narrative” (stories). Human beings are driven to categorize the world.  From the child who views all women as “Mommies” and all men as “Daddies,” to the botanist who creates phylogenetic classifications, we express our universal need to organize and store information in categories.  The second process -- the focus of this blog is narrative or stories.

Much research supports man’s inherent neurobiological need to organize information in story form.  Simply stated, when confronted with apparently random events, we seek to find connections, to understand relationships such as cause and effect and sequence and even motivation.  We are compelled to discover “meaning” in our world and our lives.  When meaningful relationships are not evident in the data (the observed events), we derive or hypothesize meaning (relationships).  Science, religion, fabrications, and many aspects of creative art (including fiction) result in large part from our need to impose meaning.  When seeking to create meaning, we may resort to hypothesis-driven research or simply to imagination.  We derive meaning by creating stories in which events fit together in a coherent whole that satisfies our need to understand why and how.  Our cultural beliefs and personal experiences determine how we go about creating our narratives, but all human beings create and use stories to explain their world and their lives. 

The Power of Myth -- 
The stories, that we believe, guide our decisions and are a powerful aspect of who we are as individuals, as families, and as nations.  Joseph Campbell compellingly presents this concept in his documentary and book, The Power of Myth (see link below).  What we believe (and relate as stories) is a form of powerful “truth” even when it does not accurately represent “fact.”  Often our stories (myths) tell us more about ourselves than about the world around us.

What is History?
As a species we love stories and storytelling because narratives satisfy our need to understand, predict, and to some extent control our world and our lives.  The discipline of “History” exists because of man’s need to create a meaningful narrative to explain the past, predict the future, and guide decisions.  By reading ancient histories (writings from past civilizations), histories written a hundred years ago, and histories written today, we can easily see how the same events result in quite different “stories” depending on the cultures and the times (scientists would say paradigms) in which the historians (story tellers) live. 

Lessons for Family Historians -- 
I come from a long line of story tellers and married into another such family. My mother was a great teacher of history.  She led me to view history as a series of wonderful stories.  I feel so sorry for those whose educational experiences have turned them against history, who see this great story of mankind as dry and meaningless – boring. 
From my earliest childhood, I heard stories told by my family members, relating things that had happened to them, and retelling stories passed down by their parents and grandparents. I loved these stories.  The people in them were my relatives and the events and times in which they lived came alive in the stories.  I wanted to know the people better.  History was my “window” into understanding their stories, and their stories gave me insight into history.

As a young adult, I was disillusioned to discover that many of the favorite “stories” of my youth were not solidly based in fact.  There were inaccurate elaborations and clear errors in some family myths.  I found identical versions of stories handed down in other families.  I became rather obsessed with unearthing “proofs” and “evidence” in my genealogical research. 

But somewhere along the line, I gained some insight that may pass for wisdom.  The “stories” are as important and as worthy of transmitting to future generations as the evidence-based “facts.”  Together, what happened, and what people believed about what happened, both enhance our understanding of history. People’s lives consist of both events and perceptions. 
Understanding our family histories requires attention to both facts and stories.  When “fact” and “story” appear to be at odds with each other, it is a mistake to believe that the facts must be true.  DNA research is rewriting many family histories and in the process, demonstrating that the facts we once believed, are less accurate than our family stories.  As a family historian, I always seek to separate myth from fact, but I pass on both stories and evidence, even when these appear contradictory, because I know that both contain their own essence of “truth.”

1 comment:

  1. Apparently my great-uncle was a master storyteller! He worked for the Baldwin family in Arcadia, California, and traveled the world with Anita Baldwin. Apparently I have inherited THAT family gift!
    ~~Cheryl Ann~~