By 7th grader Grace
An empty white backdrop. A triangle enters, it moves around for a few moments until a circle joins it. The triangle moves closer towards the circle and then, with its top point, pushes the circle into the corner of a rectangle. The circle bumps into the walls of the rectangle.
This is the Heider-Simmel demonstration, a brief animation of a few shapes randomly moving around a white backdrop. But, as research shows, nearly every person who views it forms elaborate stories around the shapes.
Triangle, what a jerk, huh? Who just shoves someone around like that?
Aww, the poor little circle, so defenseless.
A few miscellaneous moments are almost instantaneously morphed into a full-fledged story in our minds, decked out with a protagonist, antagonist, motivations, heroes, villains, and a complete story arc.
Why do we do this? Why do we seem to create stories out of every miniscule piece of information that we receive? We seem to quickly form associations and judgments around only a few cues, like size, movement, speed, and space. So we create stories about almost everything we perceive on a daily basis – consider the cloud that looks like a dinosaur, or the two leaves that look like they’re chasing each other down the street.
But our human propensity towards stories doesn’t end there. Stories also sculpt our perspective on the world. Stories teach us things. They bind us together, they create resilience and empathy, and they give us a glimmer of insight into others experiences. Stories matter.
For the last few months, the Division I Humanities class has been studying how exactly stories affect us, why we tell them so compulsively to ourselves and others, and how we can use them as a tool for teaching. We participated in the Heider-Simmel Demonstration ourselves, and explored assumptions that we made about the shapes, including their gender or emotional motivations.
Then, we discussed how stories can teach lessons and values, and we crafted our own stories centered on a lesson that we think is relevant to younger children. (The characters that we developed in the stories varied from a wasteful 10-year-old to a racoon fast food worker rebelling against a racoon tyrant.) Doria Hughes, a professional storyteller (now that's a pretty cool job!) taught us techniques for presenting our stories so they were memorable – one of the most important aspects of any story.
After practicing them in class for a few weeks, we performed our stories for 3rd and 4th graders from Neighborhood School. Then, the younger students were asked to retell our stories, and we were surprised at how easily they could mimic our narratives and characters, even using specific phrasing and tones of voice. (Thanks, Doria!)
Now, we are exploring how stories affect the way we see ourselves. We’re recording stories with family members and writing thesis essays on how characters in American Born Chinese and Gracefully Grayson were influenced by stories. Throughout all of these endeavors, we have to remember one thing: stories matter.