Storytelling: Experts on the Truthiness of Our Stories

Storytelling, including its relationship to therapy, has been the subject of extensive research by some, including psychologist Jonathan Adler. A New York Times article reports Adler’s 2007 findings that “suggest that psychotherapy, when it is effective, gives people who are feeling helpless a sense of their own power, in effect altering their life story even as they work to disarm their own demons.”

And, as told on, researcher and psychologist Dan McAdams states, “Stories help us smooth out some of the decisions we have made and create something that is meaningful and sensible out of the chaos of our lives.” Therapy, he argues, “involves helping people to tell better stories that enrich their lives and help them get past their problems.

McAdams is the author of the award-winning The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By (2006), which “charts a new psychology of American identity.” His bio informs us that he’s “most well-known for formulating a life-story theory of human identity, which argues that modern adults provide their lives with a sense of unity and purpose by constructing and internalizing self-defining life stories or ‘personal myths.'”

In a Psychology Today blog post, Jonathan Gottschall, teacher of college English and author of the new book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, further explains these myths and addresses the role of memory in all of this. He notes that “psychological research shows that our memories constrain our self-creation less than we think, and they are constantly being distorted by our hopes and dreams. Until the day we die, we are living the story of our lives. And, like a novel in process, our life stories are always changing, evolving, being edited, rewritten, and embellished by an unreliable narrator.”

Indeed, according to Gottschall, we may regularly rewrite our personal histories, whether we intend to or not:

We all have a life story that defines us—a narrative that describes who we are and how we got this way. But our comically unreliable self-narration is underpinned by boldly fictionalized memories. We are our stories, and those stories are more truthy than true.

And, as told by Gottschall to Mike Melia,

There’s this kind of uncomfortable sense that we are sort of figments of our own imagination. It’s not completely made up, of course. I like think of it as like you go to a movie and it’s based on historical facts — they say, ‘This movie was based on a true story.’ That’s a little disclaimer that should come with all of our lives stories, the story that we tell ourselves is based on a true story.

Regardomg Gottschall’s book, just out in April, Kirkus Reviews states the following: “A lively pop-science overview of the reasons why we tell stories and why storytelling will endure…[Gottschall’s] snapshots of the worlds of psychology, sleep research and virtual reality are larded with  sharp anecdotes and jargon-free summaries of current research…Gottschall brings a light touch to knotty psychological matters, and he’s a fine storyteller himself.”

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