Why we need tragedy

Having recently absorbed a whole season of Netflix-original Bloodline, that’s 13 hours of television viewing in the space of a few weeks, I have been impressed upon by, not only the marvel of on-demand long-form drama, but also the importance of the genre of tragedy.

Bloodline is thriller-drama based around several generations of the Rayburn family. It focuses on the return of black-sheep Danny, to the Rayburn home in Florida Keys on the occasion of the 45th wedding anniversary of his parents. Several decades of lies and family secrets are slowly uncovered, leading to greater and greater treachery and ultimately, tragedy.

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Percy Shelley in his essay, “A Defense of Poetry” famously stated,

Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

Tragedy is an interesting example of such legislation, as the catharsis it offers is often a reaffirmation of just desserts for hubris. Protagonists of tragedy rarely emerge unscathed, and if they do their lessons are sorely learned.

A theme of Bear Skin is how the hard stuff of life such as conflict, tension, pain, sorrow, and misunderstandings can be redeemed through story. Story tellers combine these raw elements with a character journey and use the readers inherent sense of justice to create a crescendo of crisis.

Resolution then occurs through catharsis or emotional release, often through the payoff required by justice. If our protagonist is not, as it were, caught by conventional justice or punished for their crimes, they often suffer worse through pain, guilt, trauma or an ever increasing slide into self compromise.

Why tragedy then? Why do we or anyone want stories about people suffering? Tolstoy, Shakespeare and the Greek playwrights old all knew the power of tragic narrative.

tragedy

Tragedy presents us with a protagonist full of foibles, flaws, human faults, and vices. The audience is invited to both empathise with the protagonist, but also to judge with the objectivity of a third party observer.

By creating a degree of separation, the story-teller can lead the audience through the experience of cleansing punishment experienced by the protagonist or the key players, and to process internal behaviour change, without deep self-mortification.

Tragedy is in many cases, salvation, for it is another who suffers for our sins. We observe the evils, the justified motives, the small steps which lead to a crime – and while we can empathise with their journey, and we suffer with them, we are reborn to live anew.

Anna Karenina

Waking as from a dream, we return to life, granted a second chance, the chance to live a better, wiser, more integrated life.

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The Brain and the Power of Story

Imagine that you invented a device that can record my memories, my dreams, my ideas, and transmit them to your brain. That would be a game-changing technology, right? But in fact, we already possess this device, and it’s called human communication system and effective storytelling. To understand how this device works, we have to look into our brains. 

 

This awesome TED Talk by Uri Hasson illustrates the power of “neural-entrainment” a process of creating synchronicity between brainwaves among groups of people, by simply telling a story.

Hasson shows how story telling creates shared feeling and shared thought  in much the same way that metronomes will syncronise their rhythms when sharing a vibrating base.

Such synchronicity is powerful and dangerous as it illustrates how bias can easily be transmitted among groups. However, the onus is on us to consider what stories we absorb, and what stories we share. We should continue to share stories and ideas freely, since together we are more powerful than we are alone.

You can see the original TED Talk here.

The ONE rule you SHOULD follow when you give a presentation

Any one who loves TED talks will love this article, featured in Business Insider on March 30th. Written by Carmine Gallo, its main point is:

If you want to “connect” with another person, tell more stories.

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Harvard professor Amy Cuddy thought she had made a mistake.

In 2012 Cuddy, stepped on a TED stage to deliver a presentation on how body posture influences behavior. In addition to the data, she shared a deeply personal story of how she fought her own battle with “imposter syndrome” early in her career.

AMY Cuddy

The story was unplanned and unscripted. Cuddy’s “mistake” turned out be lucrative, as the video went viral and sparked a New York Times bestseller, “Presence.”

Sharing a personal story changed Cuddy’s life, and it could change yours, too.

“What sets TED talks apart is that the big ideas are wrapped in personal stories,” Charlie Rose once said on the CBS news program 60 Minutes. Rose nailed it.

When a speaker is invited to take the TED stage, they’re sent a stone tablet engraved with TED Commandments. Among the most important commandment of all:

“Thou shalt tell a story.”

In my analysis of 500 TED talks (150 hours) and interviews with some of the most popular TED speakers, a clear pattern emerges. TED talks that go viral are made up of:

  • 65% personal stories
  • 25% data, facts and figures
  • 10% resume builders to reinforce speaker credibility

Duke professor Dan Ariely’s TED talks have been viewed 12 million times. Ariely often shares the tragic story of when he was involved in an accident as a teenager — an accident that left him burned over 70% of his body.

In the hospital, it took about an hour for the nurses to rip off his bandages to re-apply new ones. “As you can imagine, I hated that moment of ripping with incredible intensity. And I would try to reason with them and say, ‘Why don’t we try something else? Why don’t we take it a little longer — maybe two hours instead of an hour — and have less of this intensity?'”

The nurses assumed they knew better than the patient. They didn’t. The experience led Ariely to study behavioral economics and to write the bestselling book “Predictably Irrational.” Today, Ariely’s compelling personal story has made him a sought-after advisor to governments and organizations around the world.

dan ariely ted

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is learning about the power of personal story. Sandberg’s TEDx talk on “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders” has been viewed more than 6 million times and launched the Lean In movement. Personal stories make up 72% of Sandberg’s now-famous presentation. Remarkably, Sandberg wasn’t going to tell a story at all.

While preparing for the presentation on women in the workplace, Sandberg did what came naturally. The former management consultant amassed mountains of statistics on things like how many heads of state are women and how many women make up the C-suite in corporate America.

Just before she took the stage, Sandberg found herself unable to focus on the speech. She confided to her friend Pat that she was troubled about something that had happened before boarding the plane for the conference. Her 3-year-old daughter, upset at the fact that her mother was leaving, clung to her leg, pleading, “Mommy, don’t go.”

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Pat suggested to Sandberg that she should share the story with the mostly female audience. “Are you kidding?” she responded. “I’m going to get on a stage and admit my daughter was clinging to my leg?” Sandberg eventually took her friend’s advice and opened the presentation with a deeply personal story revealing the challenges she faced as a working mother.

If it hadn’t been for a personal story, we probably never would have heard of “Lean In.”

By accident, Sandberg had discovered what neuroscientists are discovering in the lab:

Stories alter brain chemistry that in turn triggers empathy in your audience. When the brain hears a compelling personal story, it triggers a rush of chemicals including dopamine, cortisol and oxytocin, the ‘love molecule’ that makes us feel empathy for another person.

At Princeton University, researcher Uri Hasson has discovered that when one person tells another person a story, the same regions of their brains light up on fMRI scans. He calls it “neural coupling,” which simply means

the two people are having a brain sync.

No other tool of persuasion has the same effect as a personal story. If you want to “connect” with another person, tell more stories. It’s a commandment worth following in every pitch and presentation.

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You can read the original article in Business Insider here.

Carmine Gallo is a keynote speaker and bestselling author of the book “The Storyteller’s Secret: From TED Speakers To Business Legends, Why Some Ideas Catch On And Others Don’t” (St. Martin’s Press).

Save the Cat

Blake Snyder was a well known American screenwriter and theorist, and his book “Save the Cat” is a leading guide to writing for screen.  In it, he outlines several tricks of the story telling trade.

One strategy he outlines is for getting the audience to side with the protagonist early on. Featured in the title, Save the Cat!  it describes the manner in which the screen writer introduces the hero in an early scene doing something nice, for example, saving a cat. This creates a bond of empathy between them and the  audience. 

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According to Snyder, the inspiration for this particular example, was the movie Alien, in which Ripley [Sigourney Weaver] saves a cat named Jones.

The contrast can be as powerful. For example, the opening montage of the TV series, House of Cards, features the  protagonist Frank Underwood, [Kevin Spacey] finding an injured and whimpering dog.

house of cards

He considers for a second, before strangling the dog and then calmly states:

Moments like this require someone who will act, do the unpleasant thing, the necessary thing.

This scene chillingly sets up his character and the whole trajectory of the TV series with its exploration of the intricasies of political ambition and power.  

Saving the cat, killing the dog,: such simple motifs connect the audience viscerally to characters through emotions of empathy or distrust.

J.K. Rowling is the world’s most influential person

Psychologist Adam Grant wrote one of my favourite books “Give and Take”, a book which examines the merits and power of being someone who “gives more than they get.”

In this article, published in Tech Insider this week, he posits that children’s author JK Rowling has been incredibly influential in shaping the values of a whole generation of young people.

Here at Bear Skin, we say “Hear hear!!” The sentiment that good writing shapes empathy and broadens perspectives, in turn shaping behaviour is a Bear Skin mantra.

Please enjoy.

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J.K. Rowling is the world’s most influential person, says top psychologist — and the reasons why are stunningly convincing

by Chris Weller

If we define someone’s influence as how much they can shape people’s thoughts and goals, Adam Grant says J.K. Rowling is in a league of her own. Thanks to her “Harry Potter” books, millions of young readers have been trained in social and emotional skills that policymakers are only starting to get behind.

Grant, a professor at Wharton Business School and author of Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, recently bestowed the title of “most influential” on Rowling in a Q&A on the open forum site Parlio.

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Not counting the Bible,

“Harry Potter has reached more people than any other book series in history,”

Grant points out.

“Never mind the movies, merchandising, and other sources of contact.”

Worldwide, “Harry Potter” books have sold more than 450 million copies.

The next highest series is “Lord of the Rings,” by J.R.R. Tolkien, at a comparably paltry 150 million copies.

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But Rowling isn’t just the most influential because she moves a lot of paper, Grant argues. It’s how her books affect kids, both in the moment and for life.

“It affects them when they’re young and impressionable — and has inspired an entire generation to read, opening the door to many other avenues for education,”

he says.

Some adults certainly read novels as a form of escape, but great novels suck you in. Science backs it up.

harry potter

Psychological research suggests that, by stepping inside the mind of a main character, reading makes us more empathetic. We consider alternative points of view and see the rationale behind choices that we may never face firsthand.

More than that, “Harry Potter” has been found to be especially helpful in reducing kids’ latent biases: Perspective-taking, wrote researchers of a 2014 study, “emerged as the process allowing attitude improvement” toward immigrants, homosexuals, and refugees when people sided with Harry over Voldemort.

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The stories may take place in fantastical worlds, but its relatable themes get kids thinking positively about the Earth they inhabit.

“Ms. Rowling,”

Grant says, addressing the author,

“the world would be a better place if you kept writing ‘Harry Potter’ books.”

You can read the full article from Tech Insider here.

How Power Makes You Selfish

Power tends to corrupt and ultimate power corrupts ultimately.

So goes the famous quote of British historian, politican and writer Lord John Dalberg-Acton.

In this recent video, UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner explains that the frontal cortex of the brain is the area in which we detect other people’s pain. He shows how damage to the frontal lobe, limits empathy which in turn incites impulsivity, anger and disconnectedness.

In short, one can acquire sociopathy.

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The interesting twist is that giving people a little bit of power, creates the same affect on the brain as trauma. People doused with sudden power, lose touch, begin to act on whims and imulses and to fail to understand what others care and think.

It gives clarity to the story that a high proportion of CEOs show sociopathic tendencies.

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So what do we do?

The story cuts close to home when similar group studies show that the power differential created by socio-economic status will will create negative behaviour – dominance, entitlement and disregard.

What is curious, is that similar groups may champion a story or film about a disabled, foreign or poor protagonist.

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Why are we so schizophrenic?

Why do we marginalise those different to us at a party or in the workplace, but love and adore stories about mentally ill patients, artists suffering alzheimers, poor migrants and so forth?


power

Is it simply a matter of stories and art, building neural pathways for us that need acting on?

A recent post, Mean Tweets, observed how bullying phrases can be turned into comedy gold by the simple act of reframing. The act of retelling creates space for objectivity and in turn humour, which builds empathy. This is art.

So art is redemptive and healing ? Art therapist believe so. I concur.

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If power negatively affects the frontal cortex in the same way that brain trauma does, stories and art can rebuild neural pathways and strengthen empathy.

I belive we all need more stories.

Narrative of Identity – Part II

In an earlier post, Journalism as Narrative, [Jan 11, 2015], I examined the fact that everyone is telling stories, even journalists. The way news items are chosen and framed presents a picture of the world.

I highlighted one of my favourite bloggers, Brandon Stanton, and his page, Humans of New York. The blog subverts the trend of selling drama,  to tell the stories of every day people.  He, almost daily posts images of people he encounters in the streets of New York, and a few lines of dialogue that captures something unique about them.

In this exerpt he explains to University students in Dublin, how he engages people in the street:

 

With over 11 million Facebook followers, Stanton resonates with his audience by highlighting the beauty, complexity, humour and vulnerability of human beings.  Nothing quite captures the power of his story telling as what has happened over the last 7 days. On January 20th Stanton took this picture of 13 year old Vidal Chastanet,  in his neighbourhood, Brownsville, New York.

"Who's influenced you the most in your life?"<br /><br /><br />
"My principal, Ms. Lopez."<br /><br /><br />
"How has she influenced you?"<br /><br /><br />
"When we get in trouble, she doesn't suspend us.  She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us.  And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built.  And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter."
“Who’s influenced you the most in your life?”
“My principal, Ms. Lopez.”
“How has she influenced you?”
“When we get in trouble, she doesn’t suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.”
On January 23rd, Stanton found and interviewed Mrs Lopez, the principal of Mott Hall Bridges Academy.
A couple days back, I posted the portrait of a young man who described an influential principal in his life by the name of Ms. Lopez.  Yesterday I was fortunate to meet Ms. Lopez at her school, Mott Hall Bridges Academy.</p><br /><br />
<p>“This is a neighborhood that doesn’t necessarily expect much from our children, so at Mott Hall Bridges Academy we set our expectations very high.  We don’t call the children ‘students,’ we call them ‘scholars.’   Our color is purple.  Our scholars wear purple and so do our staff.  Because purple is the color of royalty.  I want my scholars to know that even if they live in a housing project, they are part of a royal lineage going back to great African kings and queens.  They belong to a group of individuals who invented astronomy and math.   And they belong to a group of individuals who have endured so much history and still overcome.  When you tell people you’re from Brownsville, their face cringes up.  But there are children here that need to know that they are expected to succeed.”

“This is a neighborhood that doesn’t necessarily expect much from our children, so at Mott Hall Bridges Academy we set our expectations very high. We don’t call the children ‘students,’ we call them ‘scholars.’ Our color is purple. Our scholars wear purple and so do our staff. Because purple is the color of royalty. I want my scholars to know that even if they live in a housing project, they are part of a royal lineage going back to great African kings and queens. They belong to a group of individuals who invented astronomy and math. And they belong to a group of individuals who have endured so much history and still overcome. When you tell people you’re from Brownsville, their face cringes up. But there are children here that need to know that they are expected to succeed.”

Inspired by the community and the response to Vidal’s story, which had received over a million likes, Stanton spent time brainstorming with the teaching staff how he and the HONY [Humans of New York] community could help. Stanton and Ms Lopez discussed  a school trip to see Harvard University.

Our discussion covered many needs, but we kept returning to one in particular– the limited horizons of disadvantaged youth. Ms. Lopez’s school is situated in a neighborhood with the highest crime rate in New York, and many of her scholars have very limited mobility. Some of them are very much ‘stuck’ in their neighborhood. And many have never left the city. “It can be very difficult for them to dream beyond what they know,” Ms. Lopez explained.

Stanton promptly launched an crowdfunding campaign on Indigogo with the goal of $100, 000 to send Vidal’s class to Harvard. Subsequent posts told the stories of other citizens of the neighbourhood, other teachers of Mott Hall Bridges Academy, the teaching staff, the school community. Stanton spent almost the whole week in Vidal’s world recording the remarkable human beings and the lives they live. With each post he promoted the fundraising campaign which quiclly grew beyond a simple trip to Harvard.

Earlier today this article was released:

 Just amazing. And in less than five days. Thanks to the 34,893 of you who have donated so far. (That’s getting close to an Indiegogo record, by the way!) Thanks also to those of you who have been following along, and lending comments of support. I’m so proud of how everyone has rallied around this story, in ways that go so far beyond just raising money.
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With over $1 million dollars raised in just under a week,  the campaign was nothing less than record breaking. Funds were raised for 10 years of trips to see Harvard University, summer programs for the local school children, and a scholarship fund for students to attend university.  This not only illustrates the power of digital media and the creation of a “community” of people as far flung as South Africa, New Zealand, India, Iran and Brownsville, New York, but also the power of simply telling people’s stories.
By connecting with people’s stories, the world seems a little smaller, strangers seem a little stranger and our hearts connect with the plight of others making their problems our problems.
"When you posted last week about all the ways Vidal helps around the house, most of the comments were very nice.  But a few people really ripped into me.  They said that I was lazy and I was a bad mother.  I wanted to reply, but Vidal stopped me.  He said: 'Don't worry about them, Mom.  Let them be negative.  They don't know how it is.'"