April 2, 2016

Storytelling: Imagination Education.

Unsplash/Tamara Menzi

I knew a beautiful writer once, who—as a teenager—suffered severe physical and emotional trauma.

Morgan was bedridden for nearly two years, dying slowly from a disease no doctor was able to properly diagnose. She went to many specialists, and in the end—test after test, drug after drug—people began to believe that somehow she was doing this to herself.

During this period the only reprieve she had was the magic of story. Morgan could not go outside, she could not go to high school or see her friends—she could not be a “normal kid.” With this typical social structure removed, she filled herself up with tales of old—heroes and villains, queens and kings, knights and dragons.

Convinced that his youngest daughter was not manifesting her own condition, her dad came into her room one day and planted himself there, declaring he was not going to leave until they figured out what was wrong with her. That same night, he began to feel extremely ill himself, and that’s how they found out that there was a very small carbon monoxide leak in her room that had been slowly poisoning her.

Her dad saved her life that night—but even after, the fragility that the poisoning had created in her body would never fully heal. Morgan didn’t have the rightful chance to learn and develop with her peers, nor to experience the world with her own two hands during such an important development period in her life. Yet she was one of the smartest and most beautiful spirits I have ever known.

How did she flourish against such odds? Morgan took the stories that she read to heart—she digested philosophies and tales of both love and loss, truth and hardship—developing serious convictions that she took deep into her soul.

Stories and imagination didn’t only help to mold Morgan’s life, but actually seemed to speed up her evolution. Being so near to death gave her a mature view of what life is, and through this, she was able to tap into the potential of these tales that we pass down through humanity—and in a way, upload their content through her creativity to receive the gifts.

Morgan was a person with great empathy for people, because of the many different characters she came to understand in all of the tales she both read and imagined. Because of this, she developed a deep connection to the world around her. We all have this potential to take more from a story than just a simple escape.

As children, we all used to play with our imaginations. Whether we were out playing house with our neighbors, pretending to be adults or wielding swords in some far away land against monsters, our imaginations took us there. I myself, was a warrior, and I spent many hours after school protecting my home from all sorts of creatures. How often I saved my older brother and sister from certain death, they will never know!

Some would say that adult indulgence in mental fantasy is “escapism” and isn’t healthy. And you can usually find these same people happily plugging away in their neat little cubicles. But instead of viewing these creative fantasies as useless, what if there is actually a greater benefit that comes from our imaginations?

People as a whole thrive off of storytelling regardless of the medium used to present it. From the orations of a traveling bard, to books, to theater, to film—stories aren’t just for escape from everyday life. Rather, they help to inspire and connect us with other people and with our planet.

How can living in a fantasy world actually help people live in the real world?

I believe Morgan’s success demonstrates this. But let’s look further…

First, let’s consider why stories can be such a safe refuge for us. The most obvious reason would be that fictional stories are not real; there is no real danger, so there is no real consequence. Do something wrong in your head, and well—do the opposite. Make a mistake, and just rewind time, or mentally shift the imagined experience all together!

With this in mind, it seems only natural that many of us would spend time in our own personal fantasy worlds, which we’ve recognized as a safe place from an early age. When we were children, with so many experiences still pending, our imaginations were a training ground—a dreamscape of our inner world in which we were able to evolve and upgrade without the dangers of the “grown-up” world.

So imagination can prepare us better for our day to day experiences, because it acts as a testing ground where we can examine our reactions in a variety of circumstances. But more importantly, I believe that it can deeply affect our choices and influence our character, just as Morgan was molded by experiences that she didn’t experience first hand.

Storytelling moves us as individuals, through the joy and fears we experience deep in our creativity, allowing us to access pieces of ourselves that real life experiences may never have allowed us to tap into.

Heroes, villains, gods and goddesses have all been passed down through the collective imagination of human kind. In a way, all of these stories—fact or fiction—are a catalog for human nature, the collective emotions and inspirations that we share as a race. Certain ideas and imagery, such as good vs. evil, coming of age or the heroic journey, are timeless because they resonate on a spiritual level for us all.

We can tap into this magic, and learn to be honest and true like the great King Arthur, while embodying the courage of Anne Frank during her plight with the Nazis—all we have to do is sprinkle a bit of fairy dust on our imagination, and fly away to Neverland. The possibilities are endless, and we have been endowed with an infinite creativity that allows us to synthesize these glorious tales of adventure and love and determination. We evolve through the emotions that are evoked through story.

Uri Hasson, associate Professor of Psychology at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, did a collective study on storytelling and its effects on the human brain. He had his subjects listen to stories or read or watch movies while they were hooked up to a FMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machine to study their brainwaves.

Hasson and his colleagues discovered that storytelling in general activated the frontal lobe of the brain, the part of the human brain responsible for empathy. Personal stories actually caused both the storyteller and the listener to “sync up,” or what Hasson liked to call, “brain to brain coupling.” Basically the activity and emotional responses going off in the storytellers brain were matched by their listener—and not just in the language processing center of the brain where we transform words into meaning. Stories activate language, sensory, visual and motor areas, meaning that when sharing stories with each other, we connect with nearly the entire brain.

So I say: Never grow up!

Imagine worlds beyond our world—people and creatures and events that no one has ever seen! It’s through this practice that you might gain something not everybody has—an original view of life.

This may seem like an oxymoron—understanding existence better by spending time in an alternate one—but the more we bend the lines of reality, the better we can understand where the lines of most people’s realities are, and the more effectively we can expand and free others from that dastardly expression used far too often: “It’s impossible.”

Imagine a thriving planet, flourishing communities and ecosystems, peaceful connections with each other and nature. By sharing this with the world, you change the world. The empathetic response that is activated through story and imagination allows us to connect with each other more, and thus, the world around us.

I would go so far as to say that one of the biggest issues we face today as a species is apathy. We are at an all time high for human health crisis and environmental emergency, yet the majority of the planet and its leaders have a laissez-faire attitude. We feel disconnected from ourselves, and thus disconnected from nature, not even realizing that they are actually one. This apathy that makes us negligent towards our health, and the health of our planet, which can only be healed with empathy.

Every great thinker to ever walk this planet was either seriously questioned or considered insane at some point in their lives, but only because they could see the world in a way no one else at that time could. Existing in these imaginary planes gives us insight into ourselves, and the world around us, that we will never find in a classroom.

Go deep and find your treasure. Don’t limit your imagination, no matter how strange you might seem to some, because it’s through our stories and our creative freedom that we can take a step towards healing ourselves, our relationships and our world.


Author: Rainer Jundt

Editor: Yoli Ramazzina

Photo: Unsplash/Tamara Menzi

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