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Illustration: Erica Terry-Rose
As a result, Homo Sapiens managed to beat extinction when other species – even remarkably similar ones such as the Neanderthals – perished. So there can be no disputing that the imagination is the greatest tool mankind ever invented – it was essential to our survival and spread.
Ever since then, the imagination has been at the heart of pretty much every attribute that marks human beings as unique among animals. Take empathy, for example – you imagine being in someone else's shoes.
Or how about hypothesising – you imagine how an experiment will turn out, and set out to prove or disprove yourself.
Even mental arithmetic uses the imagination to hold conceptual numbers. Problem-solving of any kind is best achieved by imagining potential solutions.
When you are ambitious, you imagine your future self. And how would complex inventions be made without the ability to imagine them first?
Little wonder, then, that the Institute of Education published a study in 2013 revealing that children who enjoy reading for pleasure tend to perform better in subjects across the curriculum, including science and maths (1).
Put simply: improve your imagination, and you become a better human (2). So how can we develop this skill?
The Magic of Storytelling
The history of human development above suggests that imagination is an intrinsic human quality. Have a read of this sentence:
Sam went to the end of her garden, and ran her hand through the flowers that grew there.
You would be a rare human being indeed if you hadn't just imagined a female called Sam running her hand through some flowers at the end of a garden. It may only have been for a fleeting moment – you may have pictured anything from the whole scene to just the head of a single flower... Any which way, though, you imagined something.
This is because it's almost impossible for a literate human being to look at a word entirely objectively and not consider its meaning. The same happens for less literate, or even non-literate, individuals who can understand some spoken language and/or tone – which is part of what makes oral storytelling so universal.
This automatic engagement of the imagination in both reading and oral storytelling is therefore easy to initiate – and, as with any other muscle or skill, the more it is exercised, the stronger the imagination becomes. But what gives it such incredible power to engage audiences?
When you imagined Sam in the example above, how old was she? What colour was her hair? What colour flowers did she run her hand through?
All of these details were missing from the text – and yet your imagination most likely filled in the gaps for you. You might even be able to describe her house and garden too.
Automatically, your imagination created the story. Since I wrote fewer than 20 words, that actually made you more of a creator than me. Similarly, when you tell tales to an audience, they are the ones who take the creative reins.
Of course, your version of Sam is likely to be very different to mine, or any other reader's. You own a completely unique version of the story. And because your imagination knows how you think, your version will be especially adapted to your preferred way of sensing the world.
This is the key reason why anyone can be easily enthralled by storytelling – his or her imagination provides a totally bespoke representation of the story. And it is this representation for which I have coined the phrase, imaginative investment.
A listener's imaginative investment is however much of their own creativity they have had to use. Higher levels of imaginative investment bring about increased levels of engagement. Oral storytelling intrinsically inspires a high level, because the listener must create their own mental image of the action taking place.
Why use the word "investment"? The more you invest in something – money in a house, time in a relationship, effort in a job, etc – the more you care for it, right? This is equally true for products of one's imagination. When a listener has expended energy creating a mental image of a happy Red Riding Hood, s/he will care about Red's journey through the forest, and is more likely to hope Red arrives at the end of the story unscathed. Consequently, the higher the imaginative investment, the higher the listener's engagement in the story, lesson, and/or topic.
But there's more...
The narrative window of experience is also a magnet for our memory. Since we experience life through narrative, we intrinsically recognise it as an easy way to learn. When combined with imaginative investment, it provides greater recall than rote learning (3).
So these two elements – narrative, and the automatic prompting of imaginative investment – put oral storytelling among the top tools, and perhaps make it the top tool, for enjoying and getting the most out of a good story – whilst simultaneously strengthening the most crucial aspects of any human's development: language, concentration, and imagination.
– Chip Colquhoun, "Something Bad Has to Happen...": Storytelling Skills
& Creativity in the Classroom for Enhancing Educational Development, published by the EU Lifelong Learning Programme in July 2015.
The expert and experienced storytellers at Snail Tales are ready to share this incredibly powerful artistic medium with you!
Want to bring some of the magic of storytelling to your theatre or event? Click here!
Want to harness this power to improve the key skills of children in your school? Click here!
This power can even develop the skills of your workforce! Click here to find out more.
1. Dr A Sullivan & M Brown, "Social inequalities in cognitive scores at age 16: The role of reading"
2. Since we began this project, Prof Yuval Harari published a book exploring these concepts and the evidence for them, that quickly became an international bestseller. If you are interested in what we can learn from the development of human nature, it is recommended reading: Sapiens (ISBN 978-0099590088).
3. For details of our research into the comparison of narrative versus rote learning for memory recall, and more besides, click here.
The following is taken from the EU guide to storytelling in schools, written by Snail Tales' founder Chip Colquhoun.
Just over 30,000 years ago, something amazing happened. Until then, species like the Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens were similar beasts: hunting, gathering, using simple tools, even wearing jewellery and decorating with hand prints... and also being hunted, starving when food supplies were scarce, and freezing to death.
But then, the species that we would come to know more fondly as "human beings" began doing something no other creature has done before or since – they began telling stories.
These stories, found painted on the walls of caves dotted around Asia and Europe, seem designed to share knowledge about food supplies, hunting methods, escaping danger, etc. Effectively, our species extended the primitive "flight or fight" principle by reflecting on the past and planning for the future. And it only did this by developing imagination.