Understanding others is key to narrative intelligence

As we assimilate a story, our emotions are our own, not those of the characters. By means of the story our emotions may be transformed by having them deepened or understood better, and they may be extended toward people of kinds for whom we might previously have felt nothing.

Keith Oatley, “Emotions and the Story Worlds of Fiction,” in Narrative Impact: Social and Cognitive Foundations, Timothy C. Brock, Melanie C. Green, and Jeffrey J. Strange. editors.  (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates), 2002. p. 43.

One of the more delightful forms of human intelligence is the quickness and accuracy with which some people sense what others are feeling. To do this, they must (in Jerome Bruner‘s phrase) “construe reality.” We cannot, after all, see into others’ minds. To a large extent, our understanding of others is a story we tell ourselves about what their intentions seem to be and what might be causing them to act and speak as they do. Our knowledge of other people always has a fictive element.

We are most keenly aware of this when others fail--when they badly misconstrue us, ascribing to us motives that we do not in fact have. A Separate Peace by John Knowles has been a perennial favorite of high school English teachers precisely because it explores in the story of two friends at a boarding school during World War II the horrific conseqences of just such a failure. It suggests that the most pressing problems on earth, such as the world war that goes on relentlessly in the background, at least sometimes spring from just such failures.

The only way to understand others is through stories. Young people develop their narrative intelligence by experiencing many stories involving many kinds of people. Stories from books, stories from films, stories from old guys in the coffee shop downtown, stories from parents, stories from teachers and stories from friends. One of the great values of literature in the classroom is that “reading” another person isn’t so different from reading a character in a book. What we learn in literature and criticism often has immediate application in the seemingly unexalted transactions of daily life.

Young people who are quite fortunate will also find mentors who will think things through with them. Mentors who can teach the critical faculty needed to live well in a world of stories--especially the stories we are living and not just those we are hearing and telling--mentors who know something about how badly quick conclusions can miss the mark; who know how to test theories about what others are feeling by watching and probing for confirming or disconfirming details; who know the importance of patience in the face of things we don’t yet have enough evidence to know; and who can demonstrate the power of kindness to open up the mysteries of other people.

When our hearts are soft, we sense better the hearts of others. We think more exactly and understand better (hard-hearted people seem “smart” more often than they seem “intelligent").

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 06/25 at 06:14 AM
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