Daydreaming About Storytelling

I have always been a daydreamer. There isn’t a place or distraction in the world which can keep me from somehow drifting off into a daydreaming state of mind. Which, of course, must be rather amusing for others observing my behavior. One second I’m talking about Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants, and the next second I’ve got black holes in my eyes and am in full monk mode. Daydreaming is definitely the appropriate expression, since rousing me from this state is a lot like trying to wake me up: not an easy task!

So what do I think about when I’m in daydream mode? Well mostly I tell myself stories, or think about how things fit together. Now these stories definitely aren’t page turning blockbusters, they’re mostly about a problem I’ve been working on. Mentally it feels like I am constructing possible stories of how this or that problem might be resolved. Knowing X what does this imply about trying to make progress on problem P. Does it imply Y? Is Y consistent with a solution to P? Does Y fit into the story I know about problem Q? Etc. Etc.

Which leads me to the following question. How much does storytelling shape “good” thinking? (Okay, so my thinking is mostly less than “good”, but every once in a while I’m not a dufus.) For many years I’ve wondered how it might be possible to teach a class, like say, introductory mechanics (yeah I’m still a physicist at heart, you know), which teaches the physics by tracing the history of the subject. (I told this idea to some faculty well versed in physics education when I was a grad student and you should have seen them recoil in horror :) ) Now, however, I’ve come to think that this desire was a misplaced projection. What I really wanted to figure out how to do was how to teach a course where the students could build up their own consistent story of what was going on. This story, of course, must be routed in all the history of the subject: you too must come to realize the trials and tribulations which led people to believe what they do. But it isn’t necesarily a history centric endeavor, but is more squarely centered on thinking up your own story. And it has got to be a story you are constantly examining and checking, i.e. which is open to repeated examination for consistency. A story which you could come to by daydreaming.

Another piece of anecdotal evidence of the role of storytelling in sharp thinking comes from my undergraduate days. When I think about my years at Caltech, one of the most fascinating events I observed was to watch those super achieving students spin yarns. It was not uncommon to spend hours at a time, taking some departing idea and then spend hours working out the consequences of this idea. Sure, some would call this simple B.S.ing and often the point of departure involved a Simpson’s episode, but in retrospect, I think that this was a great indication that deep down in these students brains, they had built up a strong consistent storytelling mechanism for thinking.

So what role does storytelling play in shaping sharp minds? Of course, I don’t know, but I’d love to hear a story which lets me understand how storytelling fits in with how our brain works. Then I could daydream about it.

[Of course this post is a grand exercise in extralusionary intelligence, for there are certainly loads of educational data on the role of storytelling in education. A quick look this morning, however, didn't turn up anything concrete. So like any ignoramus, I've written this post completely unaware of the story other, more savy, researchers have been able to peice together.]

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11 Responses to Daydreaming About Storytelling

  1. pete says:

    IIRC, Dan Dennett is a philosopher who goes in for the story telling aspect of consciousness, talking about our constant need to tell and retell stories; and he generally makes a lot more sense than most philosophers… (Mind you, I was voting for the Transactional Interpretation of QM, so my notions of “makes sense” may not chime with yours.)

    Anyway, I need pictures, not stories – as an undergrad, I didn’t get divergence until my tutor told me to imagine drawing a box round the charge and that div measured the net field lines passing through the box’s surface. That was a little “Eureka!” moment. And I passed it on to several housemates and friends, none of whom had “got” divergence.

    And I do generally develop “pictures” like that, that I can refer to again and again, much like your stories. (Perhaps you can begin to see why I like TI.) But maybe I’ve missed your point.

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  2. Dave Bacon says:

    Indeed, “pictures” are very important to me as well (although I’m not sure this is the right word, since I often find myself using visual reasoning about…..algorithms :) ).

    BTW, I voted for the transactional interpretation as well!

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  3. mick says:

    This may not be news to anyone but something that I’ve learnt through all my political blogging is that storytelling is king to forming understanding in people’s minds.

    Many many people learn through a narrative. THE battle of the news cycle every week is to get control of the dominant narrative (or on the other hand to disrupt a narrative in order to create confusion on an issue).

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  4. Ian Durham says:

    Actually, there is an introductory physics text that takes a purely historical approach. It is sans math (well, snippets of algebra) so we use it at Saint A’s for our two-semester introductory physics course for non-scientists. The book is called Physics: The Human Adventure and is written by noted physics historians Gerald Holton and Stephen Brush. I was particularly attracted to it since I have a background in the history of physics and my colleague who usually teaches the course (I was filling in for him while he was on sabbatical for a semester) really wanted to add the historical aspect as well. But it is specifically designed to be an introductory physics text that teaches from the historical point of view (Brush has actually studied the history of physics textbooks amazingly enough).
    As for learning through narrative, I had a summer fellowship a few years ago during which I started to do precisely that – teach physics through a narrative (see the line of books by Robert Gilmore including Alice in Quantumland and The Wizard of Quarks). I am in the process of rewriting it since the original project turned out to be overly ambitious. Instead, I’m focusing on teaching quantum cryptography to the layperson via a spy novel. I plan to go back and write some stories to teach the basics (intro. physics) at some point.
    And, finally, as for daydreaming, perhaps we are really long lost brothers or something – Pink Floyd, Borges, our geographical dependency (couldn’t think of another way to describe it), and now you pretty much described how I wander through my days…

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  5. pete says:

    Yeah, I have “pictures” (a pictory?) of algorithms and data structures, filled with leaps and “refocuses”, as if—

    But wait! I’m about to use words to describe the pictures in my head. And that’s the rub. For me, words are the gauge bosons – emitted to inform you of my picture.

    These two stanza’s (by Suzanne Vega) sum it up:

    “Words are too solid
    “They don’t move fast enough
    “To catch the blur in the brain
    “That flies by and is gone

    “I won’t use words again
    “They don’t mean what I meant
    “They don’t say what I said
    “They’re just the crust of the meaning
    “With realms underneath
    “Never touched
    “Never even moved through.”

    (I haven’t even thought about how Mathematics comes into the *ahem* picture.)

    And Ian, in for the “formal” stories of novels the picture is undeniable king; that’s the point—isn’t it?—to transfer (via words) an imaginary sensory experience, as if it were real. (We’ll ignore Magic Realism, and Post Modernism.) I sometimes piffle around writing fiction myself, and when I do, the plots—so much like like algorithms—take on diagrammatic forms, not unlike—

    But there I ago again, trying to use words to describe the pictorial experience confined inside my head. ;)

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  6. Typo Guy says:

    Typo alert: See “storying telling” near the beginning of the third paragraph.

    [..and feel free to delete this.]

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  7. Dave Bacon says:

    Fixed. Muchos gracias Typo Guy.

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  8. Chucky says:

    I totally agree about both “story telling” and pictures.

    If Einstein could reply to blogs, he might say this:

    “I fully agree with you about the significance and educational value of methodology as well as history and philosophy of science. So many people today – and even professional scientists – seem to me like somebody who has seen thousands of trees but has never seen a forest. A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering. This independence created by philosophical insight is – in my opinion – the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth.”

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  9. anonymous says:

    Muchos gracias

    You fix one typo, another pops up…

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  10. Dave Bacon says:

    Doh!

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  11. Dave, I’ve been pondering this post of yours for some time and I knew there was a memory fragment I wanted to share. I think it just emerged into the daily, waking part of my brain! I took a physics course in high school called “Harvard Project.” It taught physics from a historical perspective (I hate “an” historical). We learned about Kepler before we learned kinematics equations, for example. Once I got in to science teaching, I discovered this sort of thing was out of fashion (I went to HS in the 70s). It was all about ‘standards’ and assumed a sort of linear growth in students. That is, they had to learn A, then B, then C would follow. Anyone who has worked with teens knows this is folly, kids have rich, active minds, and they need to fit what they are learning in to their pre-existing notions (this explains the persistence of mis-conceptions, even among well-educated folks). One of the authors of Harvard Project Physics was James Rutherford, who later headed AAAS’ “Project 2061″ a science education ‘reform’ movement. I actually worked with his son Stephen at one point. Anyway, I think the notion of story-telling is crucial, and that science teaching, in general, needs more context. Science is not an isolated phenomenon, it is embedded in culture, and consequently, history. Too bad we never have enough time for that sort of thing, we have to “cover” too many concepts (“factoids”). I always felt my learning in science was greatly aided by a course like Harvard Project Physics. I have a great love of history and to find that science has a rich collection of lore was a treat for a curious youngster. Not to mention that science classes hardly ever teach HOW scientists know things! Just WHAT we know! That is a crime–the history of HOW we got to where we are, HOW we thought one way, changed our minds with new info, new ideas, maybe even changed back, is too important to ignore. After all, the goal of science education is NOT to produce scientists, but to prepare a public, a citizenry with the scientists’ outlook. A small percentage of kids will become engineers and scientists, and a vast majority will grow up bewildered by science and detached from its power and beauty. That is a shame. We need to find more ways to bring together the natural, story-telling instincts of people with the great leaps of scientific imagination that enrich our world. After all, science really is just another story. Imagine what scientists 100 years from now will think of us and our “cutting edge.” Probably what we think about stuff like phrenology today.

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