Sunday, 17 March 2013

Childish tales from beyond the corpus callosum

Liberating your right brain through improvised story telling

© 2013 Mark Buchanan

Let me begin by saying that I have no connection whatsoever with Rory's Story Cubes  - the makers of the dice in the photo above - other than the fact that I bought their product.

You can find out more about them at:

Anyway, more about the story cubes later...

I have two beautiful daughters who, for most of their lives, have lived 500 miles away from me in another country. 

Since they were tiny, we have chatted every couple of days, wherever I am in the world. Initially we used to chat on the phone but for the last 5 or 6 years we have been talking on iChat.

Over the years, we have built up our own little rituals and routines and one of our favourites is to tell stories.

At the beginning , this was just an extension of our bedtime routine where I would read them a story from one of their favourite books. But, as they have got older and technology has become more sophisticated, we have started to explore more creative ways of making and telling stories.

Sometimes, we do line-by-line story making. One of us will type a line in to the chat window of iChat finishing the sentence with a branching word like "so" or "but" or "then".

The other person writes a line that picks up from that branching word, moves the story along a little bit and then finishes with another branching word.

We carry on like that until we either get bored or we have scripted ourselves into a literary blind alley. Of course, all stories have to have an ending and so our final lines are often our most creative (not to mention our most bizarre) as we attempt to tie all the loose threads together. One of my particular favourites came not so long ago:

"and so the horse ate the rose, which made him belch, and the force of his breath blew the leaves off the raspberry bush and there was the king's ring lying on the soil."

At other times, we take it in turns to choose a name, an object and a colour (or sometimes a place) and then one of us has to make up a story that incorporates all those things.

In the background we have had a long-running, episodic story going for quite a few years now.

it has a core cast of characters - the beautiful Princess Daisy and her husband - Prince Charming, two stupid villains - Larius and Noodle (actually the central characters of our stories), Princess Daisy's father - an eastern silk merchant called Gerald and a magical sunflower that glows in the dark.

Our Larius and Noodle stories (as we call them) have roamed the planet, moved freely back and forth through time and have often embraced elements from different eras and places at the same time.

We freely borrow, and then modify, themes and ideas from children's literature, current affairs and our own lives and adventures. Often we will find ourselves repeating and refining themes or story lines we have enjoyed in previous sessions.

Sometimes we come up with fantastic stories with a beginning a middle and an end but, most of the time what we produce is,  frankly, bonkers! Definitely not for consumption by others.

Needless to say, none of our stories have ever been published!

And you know what? we don't care. We are not trying to please anyone but ourselves. We don't have to follow any literary conventions and the only judges of quality are my two daughters and me.

I am the one that usually instigates them but, the truth is that my daughters are the creative engine of our storytelling sessions. Their childish lack of inhibition sets their creativity free to fly on the iridescent, gossamer wings of absurdity, adventure and wilful optimism. 

In the face of this gleeful anarchy I find the strength to disobey my "grown-up" inhibitions and fly off with them into their crayon-coloured world of infinite possibilities.

Now, whilst we are busy explaining how a pink-and-green-striped fish joined a turtle with a cracked shell to rescue a young girl's dog from an evil shark, something magical is happening inside our brains...

We are engaging in the story-telling equivalent of improvisational jazz.

We start with something known and conventional (supervised by our left brain) and then we take it off in a direction and style that is uniquely our own (aided and abetted by our right brain).

Scientists at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore have been studying brain activity in Jazz musicians as they improvise and they have discovered two important activity patterns in their brains.

Firstly there is a decrease in activity in a part of the brain know as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (pink). This is the part of the brain associated with planned actions and self-censorship. IE it is the brain centre from which we control our behaviour to fit in with social norms; what we could term our personal brand management HQ.

Whilst this is happening there is a corresponding increase in activity in a part of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex (green), which sits in the centre of the brain’s frontal lobe. This part of the brain is closely associated with self-expression and activities that convey individuality, such as telling a story about yourself.

I am sure that something very similar is going on during my story making sessions with my daugters.

Their sense of need to modify their behaviour to fit in with norms and niceties is far less developed than mine. Their ability to express themselves without fear of ridicule or rejection is, consequently, much more liberated than mine.

Curiously, when I am with them, I am much more self-expressive and liberated than I am in adult company. It is as though they give me permission to abandon "grown-up" rules and join in their game.

I have started to use story telling as a way to help some of my training groups exercise their right-brained creativity. This is where the story cubes I referenced at the beginning of this post have been so useful.

Taking it in turns, we roll the dice and each person selects 3 or 5 of them (depending on group size.) The aim is to link the pictograms on our selected dice into a story. In jazz terms this is the pattern of notes on which we are going to improvise.

We then set our right brains free to come up with whatever story-line connections between the images on the dice they want to. The more outlandish the better!

People are a little embarrassed at first but the more playful we make the atmosphere, the quicker those inhibitions disappear. 

As the game continues, people start to loosen up and think less before they tell their story; gaining confidence that their right brain will come up with something interesting as they relax their inhibitions and let their right brain go where it wants to. 

This makes a great prelude to innovation, brain storming or blue sky sessions.

Injecting our product or service into the game, alongside the random pictograms on our dice, is a brilliant way to come up with story lines or marketing copy.

When the right opportunity arises, I would like to try bringing some kids into those sessions and see what impact they have on the creative outputs.

I suspect it will be substantial.

You can find out more about the Johns Hopkins research into improvisation at the other end of this link: 

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