Why do families tell stories? What drives so many of us to engage in the storytelling side of family history?
The answer is a combination of neuroscience and common sense.
Telling Stories is in our Nature
As Robert A. Burton argues in Our Brains Tell Stories So We Can Live, science and experience provide us with facts. However, stories are how we make sense of those facts.
Even when looking at a sheet of dry statistics such as a stock market graph, our brains endeavor to fit the facts into a story. A happened which caused B to occur.
Creating a story to decode observations gives us a feeling of control over circumstances. Otherwise, life is a series of inexplicable happenings that we are powerless to prevent.
Family stories bond us
Families tell stories to create and strengthen family bonds.
They connect us to our common past.
Those shared experiences create an “Us.”
Those episodes don’t have to be earthshaking to fasten us to the family tree. We were the ones who endured that storm, who loved Uncle Tom, who lived in the big/little house. We’re southerners, pioneer stock, survivors.
Why do families tell stories? To teach and convey family values.
In fact, that’s precisely the reasons millions of families tell stories. Parents and grandparents have repeated stories for thousands of years. They want to teach subsequent generations morals and breed understanding. Stories accomplish this.
Family stories connect us to a universal experience
Of course, our individual stories do this too.
That sense of belonging, however, doesn’t necessarily create “Us versus Them” thought patterns. Instead, we use it to understand where and how we fit into the scheme of things.
As we seek to figure that out, family stories appeal to us. Tom Corson-Knowles says that’s because “As human beings, we are automatically drawn to stories because we see ourselves reflected in them.”
In his article, In Stories Matter: Why Stories Are Important to Our Lives and Culture, Corson-Knowles answers the question “Why do families tell stories?” as he explains the power of narratives:
Your brain experiences … narratives as if they were real. There is little difference between how our brain processes information when we read or hear stories and when we experience reality. To our brain, it’s all the same… Through such rich experiences, we come to understand our unique perspective and our place in the world.
In other words, we see others with compassion because their narratives resonate with our own.
Family Stories help us understand the inevitabilities of humanity better. They prepare us to face those difficult situations on our own. We’ll love, have to say goodbye, suffer heart-break and trauma, overcome adversity, and have moments of triumph.
Family Stories create empathy in and for others.
In his fascinating article for Psychology Today, Why Sharing Stories Brings People Together, Joshua Gowin, Ph.D., explains how stories have the power to foster empathy toward others.
In a controlled experiment, a woman told a story in both English and Russian while in a MRI scanner. Volunteers who spoke English, but no Russian listened. As she spoke, scientists monitored both the storyteller’s and the listeners’ brain activity.
Although the listeners had no remarkable brain activity when they heard the volunteers story in a language they didn’t understand, Dr. Gowin reports substantial findings when the woman narrated her stories in English:
When she had activity in her insula, an emotional brain region, the listeners did too. When her frontal cortex lit up, so did theirs. By simply telling a story, the woman could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains.
Families tell stories to Memorialize Ancestors
Through stories, ancestors and family members continue to exist in the family consciousness.
Family stories also help future generations form connections to family members they never knew. (See also How to Form Emotional Connections to Family Members You Don’t Remember.)
Families tell stories to document the family’s existence and place in history.
There’s an internal drive to leave a mark on the world, to create a legacy of sorts. We also have the urge to do that for our family’s history.
Family storytelling allows us to leave an imprint on history. We can explain what role the family or ancestors played in historical events.
This doesn’t mean that your ancestors had to be remarkable or influential to be worthy of a family story. Every individual plays a part in history. As we write our family stories, we can leave accounts (please, please, factually accurate accounts) of victimhood, oppression, advocacy, bearing of arms, moral rectitude, victory, defeat… The list goes on.