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Stories: Evolutionary tools of our humanity

Stories: Evolutionary Tools of our Humanity

By Jade Jacobsohn

Author Ursula K Le Guin once wrote, “there have been a great many societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.” Which is peculiar. There is such huge diversity in the human experience that this consistent social norm, shared across every country and every culture, has fascinated anthropologists for decades. Case study after case study has shown how stories have been used as tools to shape whole societies and their interactions with the world. 

Now, with advances in neuroscience, we can see more conclusively that this universal love of the verbal art of storytelling is for more than a frivolous pastime. Sharing stories is an evolutionary tool which quite literally alters our minds (Hutton et al, 2015). 

I was raised on a staple diet of stories. Clean the child, feed the child, tell the child stories. Job done.  Despite my urban upbringing, the ingredients in my stories were of an earthier nature. The tales that ignited my imagination were of desert elephants and living fossil plants, of realising that the persistent sound that woke you came from the scraping of a lion’s rough tongue against the canvas of your tent while she licked up the morning dew. 

My aunt the anthropologist knew the power of stories, and their power to build a base of compassion. She told me tales of strong, nomadic pastoralists who over years had become her family, and when I questioned her choices out of ignorance for a world I had never seen, she helped me understand through her stories that there are so many ways to be in the world, and that it’s merely our own experiences that inform how they’re valued.

For Brian Boyd, author of On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction, a story is “a thing that does” not merely a “thing that is”. When shared with children, stories help build bonds between the teller and the listener. They provide richer, deeper pools of language and vocabulary for children to draw from. They’re the biological equivalent of squats and sit-ups for the synaptic pathways in the brain. And they can stir the motor cortex in ways that put the recipient in the shoes of the person the story is about. They stimulate in the brain ideas about what life could be like if you were not you, so building kindness and empathy. 

It is with some of these sentiments at heart that this September, Nal’ibali encouraged every South African, young and old, to take part in Story Bosso, its third annual multilingual talent search contest.   This year’s Story Bosso focused on African folktales, and Nal’ibali is used this opportunity to not only reawaken a love of storytelling – an important forerunner in children’s literacy development – but to help preserve our traditional stories through community storytelling sessions and auditions that were held across the country. Books and specially-created sets of storytelling playing cards featuring common folktale characters were distributed at these events. 

So, let’s get closer to one another and share our love for stories.


Jade Jacobsohn, Managing Director at Nal’ibali.

Connect with her on Facebook:Jade Jacobsohn

Twitter: @Nali_Jay

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