Paying attention through stories

One of the ways we pay attention is to tell stories. When we tell a story, we allow ourselves to focus on different elements that join to form single meaning (if what the story really meant could be conveyed in a phrase, then we would not need the whole story). As we listen to a story, we focus on one element at a time - the colour of a shirt, the kind of chair in the dining room, the lampshade or the leaky ballpoint pen. Each detail catches our attention - it sparks activity in the part of the brain used for processing that particular kind of information - and then connects to the next detail in a web that is not only external (in the language of the storyteller) but internal, in the complex patterns of brain activity it causes.

The best stories are full of detail - some that supports the story's moral and some that appear random or circumstantial. Does it really matter that her dress was red or that his eyes were blue? Why is there a twist of humour or of fate as the story unfolds? Why are the patterns more interesting if their fabric is uneven? We all love a story that surprises us, a story where the last piece in the puzzle changes the pattern we thought would be revealed. Curious, isn't it? We're not often delighted when real life throws us a curve as our plans unfold.

The secret is, in part, that it is the anomalies that catch at our attention and it is our attention that makes the stories meaningful. Change, surprise, twists of fate: they focus our attention with marvellous intensity, in stories as in life.


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