Which connecting paths lead from the picture of an owl to the picture of a cat?
Researchers have long been investigating the mechanisms of cultural transmission.
A pioneer of this field of research was the British psychologist Frederic Bartlett, who in his book "Remembering" (1932) examined the connection between perception, prior knowledge, memory and the transmission of information.
For example, he had subjects draw an image from memory one after the other.
An illustration of this chain experiment is printed in Fritz Breithaupt's new book.
The outline drawing of a bird was presented to the first subject, in which Breithaupt, with his ornithological expertise, recognized a barn owl.
The second draftsman enriches the drawing of the first with pointy ears.
A few less talented let the passed sketch become more and more indistinct, until finally number nine comes up with the idea of adding a tail to the remaining tangle, from which the tips of the ears are just sticking out.
Saving twist, the barn owl has become a cat.
From there the pattern is stable, as Breithaupt writes: "Cat is cat is cat."
The dissolution of rigid role models
In terms of language, this experimental arrangement is known as a silent post game, in which a short story or just a word is sent from mouth to ear through several stations.
For his book, Breithaupt draws on the results of thousands of such games that he had carried out as head of the Experimental Humanities Laboratory at Indiana University.
They confirm Bartlett's finding that stories are polished, simplified, cleaned of incomprehensible elements and fitted into existing cultural patterns through continued retelling.
Unlike his famous predecessor, Breithaupt is not only interested in this cognitive dimension.
He also extracts from his data indications of the central importance of emotions for storytelling.
For the most part, the emotions – cheerful or sad, embarrassing or emotional – are the stable element in passing on a story while its content changes.
They "become the anchor to which stories can be anchored".
From this finding, the author develops a large-scale theory of the evolutionary history of storytelling.
According to him, storytelling, as a distinctive way of communicating with us as human beings, seeks reward, and that reward is the release of emotions.
This would encourage us to develop our narrative skills - in waking dreams, in everyday communication and in the multitude of fictional worlds in which we make ourselves at home.
By virtue of its “multiversionality”, storytelling expands our space of consciousness.
It invites us to empathize with those around us;
it promotes and trains the ability to empathize;
it bundles collective attention (joint attention).
Above all, however, it teaches you to move in a world of plural possibilities,
because "in narrative thinking we are always in the middle of a story", we experience the uncertain situation of the protagonists in ourselves and share their field of vision, which is both limited and open.
Because characters in narratives need to be “playable” by their very nature, narration, according to this line of reasoning, dissolves rigid role models.
"Even the strongest stereotype that keeps us captive," Breithaupt believes confidently, "is broken down in narrative thinking."