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Sharing Stories: Reflections on World Book Day

8 March 2024

Image credit: Steve Libralon via Unsplash
Image credit: Steve Libralon via Unsplash

Our love of stories, whether fiction or non-fiction creates an appetite for more information. Stories are irresistible to us because they reward our curiosity about others’ experiences. They inspire us and invite us to consider the unimaginable possibilities that exist outside our familiar day-to-day lives.

According to psychologists we are hard-wired to enjoy stories. This is for reasons that are inextricably linked to our survival. Our instincts interpret day-to-day events as stories and the majority of these never reach our conscious awareness; but on the other hand, the most salient moments stand out because they were unusual in some way: it is that that made them memorable.

Narrative and the nervous system

About twenty years ago, I remember riding on a small, rickety electric train. Like most trains, it had seats, mini carriages and wheels, but no sides and no roof. It jolted as it carried us on a miniature railway deep underground. The air became colder and everyone was chattering quietly as we rumbled deep down into the limestone rocks. We were on our way to see prehistoric cave art. In the distance a low murmuring caught my attention. I hoped it might be an underground flow of water, but suddenly our train stopped and the low vibration became louder as it approached us. I had no idea what to expect. The noise was deafening and the lights went out. We sat not only in silence, but in dread.

This is a true story based on the uncertainty that we, the tourists, all experienced in an unfamiliar place, cut off from the outside world and in fear of impending doom! As it turned out the trains always passed each other in this way and the matter of altering the points on the tracks was done manually. Once the lights came back on, and having experienced an immense surge of relief, I think we enjoyed the cave art even more.

Perhaps the drama of the half hour ride into the hillside put us all in touch with the deepest feelings of terror that the nervous system is primed to deliver. There was nowhere to hide during that unusual experience and we all felt vulnerable for about ten minutes. Perhaps it was by design that we experienced what the early artists may have felt when they made the cave art at ‘Grotte de Chauvet’, so far away from the familiarity of mundane life on the surface.

And as today is International Women’s Day, I’d like to acknowledge that the cave art at Chauvet, was most likely made by women. It was executed in red and depicted the female form in relation to sacred animals, as well as handprints of red ochre (Fagan, 2005).

Reflecting on the life ways of ‘Cro Magnon’ man at the end of the Ice Age, Brian Fagan acknowledged the importance of music and stories when he described the challenges of living within the natural world. There were long hard winters and an unpredictable supply of food; but the rhythm of the seasons remained unchanged:

‘People thought of themselves as part of a living world, where animals, plants, and even landmarks and inanimate objects had lives of their own. The environment lived and surrounded one, defined by intangible forces and personalities, whether human or not. To live in such a way required a powerful imagination, the ability to conceptualise, to chant, to make music, and to tell tales that validated human existence and explained the natural order of things.’ (Fagan, 2005, p.142)

However, only a few thousand years later human societies experienced a technological revolution. They harnessed the cyclic seasonal rhythms of nature and through the advent of farming, created a more predictable supply of food. In the transitions from hunter gatherers to farmers, and then into city dwelling civilisations, the functions of storytelling also changed to reflect the new challenges that humans faced. Living in closer proximity, humans experienced profound changes in terms of sanitation and disease.

In his ‘Selfish Gene Theory’, Dawkins (1976) proposed that humans were susceptible to stories, particularly those that involved supernatural powers, (not because our sensibilities were finely attuned to the natural environment throughout our evolution), but because they were gullible and self-delusional. In a similar vein, Humphrey’s ‘Machiavellian Theory’ (1976) acknowledged that as humans became more socially sophisticated, they were better able to deceive and outwit each other. This would involve inferring and anticipating the thoughts of another and also an ability to envision imaginary scenarios. The creation of fiction and story-telling may well have become more important for navigating social structures in the new villages and first cities - anticipating an unpredictable supply of food was no longer society’s primary concern.

Before the first books were written

Before the first books were written, people would share the most iconic stories in verse form or as ballads. The couplets of verse and the regular structures of songs helped with learning and recalling all the details, and this was important for maintaining the integrity and credibility of the narrative with each retelling. The most important information, such as the early laws in Ancient Greece for example, were recited in verse for this reason.

According to Thucydides, the citizens of Ancient Greece were schooled in a rich oral culture through the recitation. These were later written down by Homer as the famous Iliad and Odyssey, which detailed the epic feats of supernatural figures: Greek gods, goddesses, heroes and heroines. The driving metre and melodious quality of the poetry, in particular the rhythmic and repetitive lines, helped the young citizens to commit large amounts of material to memory (Wolf, 2007, p.57). Arguably, the Ancient Greeks had learned to hone and develop executive cognitive functions through these techniques as the benefits of committing large amounts of material to memory included achieving mental focus and control of distraction. Hierarchical structures in the form of the poetry would have supported logical and philosophical thinking as well as provided the ability to ‘step back’ and see the ‘big picture’.

As a side note, today’s professional musicians, dancers and actors in the creative sector’s performing arts are trained through the traditional discipline of each art form to commit large volumes of information to memory for public performances. These are now celebrated and ‘consumed’ via live streaming, broadcasts and recordings, and enjoyed by audiences all around the world.

Prehistory ended when the first story was written down

According to art historian, Zainab Bahrani, the first stories ever recorded were ‘ancient myths of origins’, which dated back to Mesopotamia of the historical era, when higher levels of art and architecture began to emerge. The Mesopotamians credited a god known as ‘Enki’ (Sumarian) and also known as Ea (Akkadian) and this deity was associated with the creative origin of the world.

Similarly, there was a Babylonian myth that described a place called ‘Eridu’. This was thought to be the first place to be created by the gods and ‘Eridu’ was sacred to ‘Enki’, the god of water, wisdom and craftmanship’ ((Bahrani, 2017, p. 42).

‘The city of ‘Eridu’ is recounted here, and even in this early story, translated into English (Bahrani, 2017, p. 36), it is clear that the narrative is presented in a rhythmically coherent way and with a clear structure:

“A holy house, a house of the gods in a holy

place had not been made, reed had not come

forth, a tree had not been created,

A brick had not been laid, a brick mould

had not been built,

A city had not been made, a living creature

had not been placed (within)

All the lands were sea,

The spring in the sea was a water pipe.

The Eridu was made.”

The city of Eridu was discovered in the twentieth century and this work revealed that people had first lived there some seven thousand years ago, and had created no less than eighteen excavated levels of occupation. By studying these levels, academics have been able to map the story of cultural development of this society over many generations, from hunter gatherers, to farmers, to citizens dwelling in complex cities. The stories of this civilisation were first written down in the fourth millennium B.C.E..

The invention of writing was a cultural advance that took place alongside the development of high art and architecture, refined craftsmanship and image making. The creative endeavours of the extraordinary Sumarians involved complex aesthetic structures, ordered and planned spaces and were known collectively as ‘ME’. This word is usually, according to Bahrani, translated as ‘the arts of civilisation’ (Bahrani, 2017, 46). The oldest written texts, which were found in Uruk in Iraq, recorded administrative matters, such as the trade of local produce including cattle and crops. Evidence also existed of other forms of writing in the third millennium B.C.E., and included poetry, sciences and mathematics (Bahrani, 2017).

Why do humans find stories so irresistible?

Prominent thinkers have attempted to answer this question. The classical view was that humans are cooperative and wanted to trade rather than wage war with each other. We only share personal stories when we feel safe and people feel privileged when someone confides in them and builds trust in this way. For this reason, stories may have been an effective means to attain non-kinship ties. These were hard won and even today, families and nations work hard to sustain these links through successive generations. The diplomacy of such bonds requires maintaining trust through high levels of respect and courtesy, verbal and non-verbal social interaction, as well as the sharing of food together. Each level of social bonding would have required a delicate balancing of different perspectives, achieved in such a way that they could not destabilise the all-important trade network.

Perhaps metaphors became important as key negotiating tools of the early traders, when first brokering these networks. The social value of a metaphor for example, could lie in its value as a symbol for relaying sensitive information. Sharing a symbolic reference ( a pair of doves as a gift, representing peace) would build mutual understanding and protect the traders from causing unintended offence. Travelling long distances, they most likely spent considerable time exchanging hospitality with trading partners, and stories would have helped to pass the time, whilst also building bonds of trust.

Most importantly, a story carrying a metaphor could potentially cloak a direct message through its simple arc of beginning, middle and end, and also carry a deeper meaning. The value of sharing a story would have allowed people from different backgrounds to understand one another’s situation from a higher perspective or from a ‘neutral’ point of view.

Anthropologists believe it was possible to build strong networks of social cooperation on a rich understanding of symbolic culture, and this may explain the importance of stories in our evolution in increasingly complex societies. (Dunbar et al., 1999).


Despite the importance of storytelling for the smaller social groups and the development of large trading networks, its power continuous to mesmerise children and adults alike, whether through films, radio or books. In celebrating World Book Day, many children have created costumes to reflect the characters in their favourite books. This gesture perhaps reminds us all of the importance of stories in our cultural history and prehistory, when humans understood their lives within the narrative of a broader, more cosmic and supernatural context. Although children are not expected to recite poetry as their great grandparents did, it is interesting to see thats superheroes and magical characters are still relevant today. Even more remarkable, the heroes and heroines of today’s literature still embark upon epic journeys of self-discovery, just as they had done thousands of years ago in Homer’s poetry.

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Confidence and happiness in the Rhythm for Reading programme

Optimal experiences are life-affirming, intrinsically rewarding and in terms of pedagogy, they are highly desirable because they boost students’ confidence and motivation. They can be very helpful in realigning attitudes towards reward, so that students become motivated by the sheer joy of taking part rather than wanting to know what they will ‘get’ in return for taking part.

Statistically significant impact after only 100 minutes

As the approach is rhythm-based instead of word-based, pupils with specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia or English as an Additional Language (EAL) benefit hugely from the opportunity to improve their reading without using words. It’s an opportunity to lighten the cognitive load, but to intensify precision and finesse.

What are metaphors for?

We all share a common heritage that stems from traditional pre-literate societies in which metaphors have been extraordinarily important tools of diplomacy and ingenuity. Using the richness of imagery, they allowed delicate messages to be conveyed indirectly, thereby fortifying relationships between different groups of people.

Visiting the library for the very first time

This child’s bold plan moved and inspired me to visit the Norfolk Children’s Book Centre to put together a list of books for children who have discovered the joy of reading and are preparing to visit their nearest library for the first time. The Norfolk Children’s Book Centre houses some 80,000 children’s books. As dolphins, dinosaurs and gladiators feature prominently in our resources and are extremely popular with the children, they provided an obvious starting point for our search for these particular books.


Z. Bahrain (2017) Mesopotamia: Ancient art and architecture, Thames and Hudson Ltd., London.

R. Dawkins, (1976) The Selfish Gene, Oxford: Oxford University press

R. Dunbar, C. Knight abd C. Power (1999) The Evolution of Culture, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press

B. Fagan (2010) Cro-Magnon: How the ice-age gave birth to the first modern humans, New York: Bloomsbury Press

J.R. Humphrey (1976)’The social function of intellect, In Bateson P.P.G. and Hinds R.A.. (Eds.) Growing Pains. Ethology Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

M. Wolf (2008) Proust and the squid: The story and science of the reading brain, London: Icon Books

Tags: Rhythm for Reading , joy of reading , Ancient Greece , Nervous system , executive function

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