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.]