To the human mind: context is everything.
This is obvious even on the physical level of grey matter. Show me the brain cell that holds your first memory of smelling your grandmother’s freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies coming out of the oven.
You can’t single it out. It doesn’t exist.
It is only when a cluster of brain cells fires in a certain pattern that you can recall that memory. The memory is housed in the relationship those brain cells have with one another. Their context, you might say.
In like manner (and probably because of it), abstract, individual facts separated from any context are foreign to your mind.
For example, take the statement, “mitochondria are the primary organelles responsible for producing ATP“. If you are a biologist, or have studied the science, you can instantly recognize the truth of this statement, because you have a knowledge of facts underpinning your understanding of it. If not, this fact hangs in the air, contextless, tied to nothing, associated with nothing, and is quickly forgotten.
But what if I extend the sentence to read, “mitochondria are the primary organelles responsible for producing ATP in the human body“?
Now you have a point of reference. You know about the human body – you live in one. You might not know what mitochondria are, or what ATP is, but now you know that the first produces most of the latter in your body.
Boom, instantly the fact is less abstract. Instantly it is more memorable thanks to the context that was added (prepositional phrases are great context-adders).
But let’s not stop there. Let’s extend the idea some more.
“When you consume food, it is digested and enters your bloodstream as a number of chemicals which make their way to your cells. Once inside a given cell, these chemicals are sent through a series of chemical reactions and end up in the mitochondria. Mitochondria are the power-stations of your cells. They set to work to convert these chemicals into the energy molecule ‘ATP’ (adenosine triphosphate), which is what gives your muscles the ability to contract and move you around. Or, in the case of your jaw muscles, the ability to chew more food!”
This paragraph gives several additional points of familiar reference to what began as an abstract fact. We get a reference to eating and digestion (which you do daily), chemicals in your bloodstream (you knew those were there, right?), power-stations (make it nuclear, if you like), and muscle contraction (which allows you to tell your computer to scroll down this page). And of course, we come full-circle at the end to eating again.
What I did in this paragraph was add context. Ostensibly enough that you will now have some level of command over this fact and have an increased likelihood of carrying it with you when you navigate away from this page.*
But here’s what I want you to key in on: what form did this context-adding exercise ultimately take?
Was it in bullet-points? No.
I told you a story.†
Stories set facts in relation to one another.
They contextualize. They make associations. They are anti-abstract by their very nature.
And so, they captivate the human mind.
In fact, I am convinced that there is no greater force in the human mind, and therefore human society and culture (for good or for ill), than the stories that are told from one to another. Because stories do not just inform.
They persuade. They comfort. They incite.
They provide meaning.
My aim is to explore stories and storytelling as a concept and as an art.
If you want to journey with me, bookmark this page, and check back soon.
*This is the idea behind mnemonics. The method sets more points of reference for a given fact, giving your brain more connections to make to arrive at the memory, and thus more opportunities for correct recall.
†Arguably, a story in the form of “The Hero’s Journey” – but that’s beside the point.