Behind the door of my father’s study was a shelf. On that shelf were three piles, the contents of which were of immense interest to us three children.
Pile One: jumbo salted peanuts. Our dad ate packets of these while writing, often throwing them to the dog in a bid to train her. This being the 70s nobody took a Labrador’s salt intake into consideration.
Pile Two: chocolate bars. These were bought in London during the week, when our father was away from home and handed out upon his return. The most prized of these being the Amazin’ Raisin bar, which sadly no longer exists.
Pile Three: joke books and cartoon books. These bore titles such as: The World’s Worst Jokes, Even Worse Jokes and The Shaggiest Ever Shaggy Dog Stories. The cartoon books were Giles, Gary Larson and James Thurber.
Back then, I didn’t really link these piles, but sitting down to write a blog on stories, as I’m doing now, I can find a link: and it’s one of reward and anticipation.
Throughout our childhood, my father used stories to teach us, to illustrate a point, make us laugh and to impart wisdom.
Far more knowledgeable people than me have written of the power of stories, among them two close family friends, the novelist and Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing, and the eminent psychologist and author Robert Ornstein.
Writing in 1999, Doris explained:
‘Sufis do not pull apart a tale to find its meaning, but cite the case of a child who has dismantled a fly and, left with a heap of wings, a head, and legs asks “Where is the fly?”’
Robert Ornstein, speaking at the Library of Congress a few years later, points out:
‘On the surface teaching stories often appear to be little more than fairy or folk tales. But they are designed to embody – in their characters, plots and imagery – patterns and relationships that nurture a part of the mind that is unreachable in more direct ways, thus increasing our understanding and breadth of vision, in addition to fostering our ability to think critically.’
How right it is then, that the contents of these joke books, cartoons and shaggy dog stories should be remastered in such a way as to foster critical thinking and impart wisdom, in a way similar to the traditional tales of Afghanistan, Central Asia, the Middle East.
I see now that it wasn’t the source of the material that held an allure for us as children, but the way in which the stories were told, the human connection, and above all, the ambiguity of the ending.
Educators are becoming increasingly aware that brain-teasers are essentially thinking puzzles, which use logic and critical thinking to find an answer. Researchers have found that games such as sudoku and riddles require the brain to implement a different process of thinking to come up with a solution. Lateral thinking, or problem solving with an indirect or creative approach, is often the best way to crack open a thinking puzzle, as in this way we might reach a solution from a different angle. Just as brain-teasers are designed to stretch the mind, encouraging us to approach the problem in an alternative way, an open-ended story exercises the mind. And there seems to be a growing sense among teachers that an exercised mind can help children with physical ability, and their ability to adapt to change, as well as helping them with their schoolwork.
Research conducted at the University of Washington last year used MRI to reveal how the brain steers away from problem-solving processes that are not getting a result and towards strategies that are more rewarding.
When you look for a pattern, or a rule, and you just can't spot it, your brain backs up and starts again. This is your brain recognising that your current strategy isn't working, and that you need a new way to solve the problem. In this way, a puzzle, or ambiguity is similar to weight lifting for the mind.
And why do we care whether we solve a problem?
Anyone who’s experienced that ‘penny drop’ moment will be familiar with the brief but absolute pleasure felt at that ‘eureka’ feeling.
About four years ago, neuroscientists in Austria teamed up with UK researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London, this time using MRI in a bid to find out what happens in the brain at the moment a problem is solved. They found that the rush of excitement that came at the moment of insight was produced by a flood of dopamine into a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens.
Dopamine is well known as a messenger involved with reward processes. It seems that it is also plays a role in keeping a problem-solver motivated, producing curiosity and a willingness to learn, and thus acting as a powerful force in man’s ability to develop and survive.
So whereas we are taught to glibly repeat a fable, often using it as a shortcut for meaning, a teaching story is designed to delay the message, revealing itself in layers. Just as Doris points out with her fly analogy, a story isn’t necessarily the sum of its parts.
As schoolchildren we are encouraged to commit to memory fairy-tales and fables. As adults we learn to trot out quotes, clichés and snippets of ‘wisdom’. These well-worn and easily digested stories and mini stories offer little exercise to the brain. If a teaching story is a mental gym, a fable must surely be the brain’s equivalent of a squashy sofa and a packet of biscuits.
And yet we continue to use these shortcuts in our everyday lives, perhaps even more so now that social media has muscled its way to centre stage. Completely ignoring the analytical approach, we are taught to concentrate on the memorising and regurgitating of text and to derive a meaning immediately, in tests which are, amusingly, called ‘comprehension’.
‘It’s the tortoise and the hare,’ we say, nodding our heads wisely. ‘It’s the North Wind and The Sun.’
I’d challenge anyone, young or old, to feel a rush of dopamine on hearing the final line of an Aesop’s fable.
Thinking of this, I’m reminded of Saturday evenings at supper in The Elephant – a converted barn at Langton, our family home.
After the meal, when many mini conversations died down to make space for a single discussion, my father would look round the room at the various guests who had gathered, and try yet again to explain why the worst people to educate were teachers.
‘You have no idea how to be wise,’ he’d bark at the teachers and academics shifting in their stackable chairs. ‘My children are laughing at you!’
And we kids would slip out of the barn, racing over the gravel to the main house and burst into our mother’s sitting room, yelling that Baba was being rude to the teachers again.
And she, knitting away surrounded by her favourite cats, would say: ‘He’s always doing that.’
Since I have been editing my father’s stories and turning them into children’s books, I feel myself having to caution myself not to fall prey to the conceit of the teacher and to leave the decoding of the story to the person reading it. To leave the unwrapping of the present to the person that present was gifted to.
When my father told us a story, its final lines were left hanging in the air. Sometimes we were rewarded with that euphoric penny-drop moment, sometimes that moment would come later, and occasionally we hadn’t the foggiest idea what on earth had just been said. But without exception, there was pleasure in the exchange.
Our dad perhaps paused at the kitchen door, having deposited his empty lunch tray by the sink, we three sitting on the countertops with our feet dangling down towards the floor. The story was his way to connect with us, having walked from his study into our world. And he never failed to delight on occasions such as these.
If a glibly truncated fable is a poor stand-in for ‘the real thing’, a well-crafted story is a masterpiece that unfolds.
To help me try and explain this, I asked three great storytellers I know to sum things up in their words.
Myrna Shoa, who worked for many years with The College of Storytellers, and who now runs World in a Suitcase, an awe-inspiring project aimed at refugees and immigrants, says:
‘I am constantly seeing people connected by stories and seeing the power and beauty of stories, and how they help us find similarities between ourselves rather than differences.’
Laura Collins believes that no story means any one thing, but rather that people take what they need from a story, at any given time.
She explains how upon telling a story to long-term HIV sufferers as part of her voluntary work at River House Trust in Hammersmith, she’s been thanked for having helped them ‘leave their troubles at the door’.
How, having told children living on London housing estates the story of ‘The Eye of The Dragon’, where a dragon painted on a wall comes to life and starts breathing smoke, she’s been told it reminded them of Grenfell. And how an elderly man, to whom she told the story of Tia Miseria, about an old lady who cheats Death, said:
‘That’s a perfect story about euthanasia.’
Andrew Boden is the author of The Secret History of My Hometown, which is a brilliantly imagined history of his hometown, Cranbrook in British Columbia.
His quote is so good that I’m tempted to make it the conclusion for this blog, as I have to admit that I’d struggle to do better:
‘Imagine, for an awful moment, a world without stories. There’d be no Epic of Gilgamesh, no Arabian Nights, no Nasrudin tales. Consider the consequences for us, for our cultures and for our children. What would we have lost? What would we have lost of ourselves? Stories entertain, yes, but the best ones show us ways out of the predicaments we find ourselves in. They’re a signpost and the light to read that signpost on the darkest nights.’