Story-ing as shared feeling, not isolated words | Benjamin Freud, Ph.D. | 13 Min Read

February 16, 2024

Life is a dance of opposites, each necessary to the other.

—David Orr

In the late nineteenth century, French writer and scholar Georges Polti wrote that all stories can be distilled down to a limited number (36, to be exact) of dramatic situations. In the mid-20th century, Joseph Campbell suggested that all mythic narratives share one fundamental structure, the monomyth (or the “Hero’s Journey”). In the late 20th century, Christopher Booker identified seven basic plots. What is important here isn’t the exact number of different plot types, but rather the realization that we don’t get bored watching, hearing, or reading what are effectively the same storylines. We keep coming back, again and again. 

Storytelling is the most ancient form of human communication: we are physiologically wired to connect through stories. Telling and listening to stories connect teller and listener. The process of storytelling and story listening (let’s call this process “story-ing” to underscore how this is an intra-active process) releases dopamine and oxytocin neurotransmitters, which promote happiness, bonding, and trust. It activates mirror neurons, which lead to greater empathy, and reward pathways, which give a sense of fulfillment. It is a process that allows us to navigate complexity and make sense of the world by involving the prefrontal cortex. What happens inside us augments the social functions of creating culture, passing on information, and warning of danger. We are made to story. 

We are physically, psychologically, and socially dependent on stories. This probably explains why we come back for more, even if we know that Spiderman will save the day, that the couple will get together in the end, and that the puppy will find its way home. Stories aren’t compelling on purely intellectual or cognitive levels. Story-ing is an emotional process that is held within the structure of the plot (which is created partly through intellectual and cognitive, or techniques designed to evoke emotive responses), but becomes alive (a story) through our experiencing of joy, sadness, sympathy, pity, admiration, fear, awe, and/or wonder. We can only experience these emotions when we participate in story-ing. In other words, we connect as our imaginations transport (transcend? transform?) us into the worlds we create by the story-ing. Stories are a material-discursive practice, to get geeky and esoteric. 

Yet while story-ing is an experience that we create together, our sensory experiences are noticed within our momentary individual consciousness. American literary critic Edmund Wilson famously said “No two persons ever read the same book,” meaning their responses are unique to their situatedness. Since situatedness itself is never static—we move [with/as] space-time—individuals can never read the same book either. 

When we read or listen to a story, what each of us sees in our mind’s eye, hears in our mind’s ear, senses in our mind’s skin will be different. What does Tom Sawyer look like beyond his blue eyes, yellow hair, and “streaked and freckled” skin? What do the incessant noises sound like outside Gregor Samsa’s bedroom in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis? How does the pain feel for Winston Smith in the year 1984? We might come close, yet we will never converge our imaginations completely, even as we participate in the same experience of story-ing. Story-ing is a process of assemblage-ing. 

Films provide us with sensorial specificities (image and sound) that fill our visual and aural gaps. Like theater and radio, film is able to use creative techniques (e.g. camera angles, costumes, music) to intensify our emotional responses in ways that books can never do. “Star Wars” is as recognizable by its soundtrack as it is by the mask of Darth Vader. You might also recognize the shower scene in “Psycho” by sounds of the screeching knife, sounds as iconic as the two musical notes from “Jaws.”

When we read books or watch films, we allow ourselves to be transported into imaginary worlds, transcending our current states and connecting—by participating—with others in the process of story-ing. This is why a story must be plausible to us (we gotta believe) or we will not be willing participants in its unfolding.[1]Suspension of disbelief is a tacit agreement between the storyteller and the audience to compromise for the sake of the experience. We all have different limits to how far we are willing to … Continue reading Plausibility doesn’t mean that stories have to feel real; it means stories have to feel coherent with our other experiences. We can let our imaginations run wild, but without coherence, we will not participate or make meaning. This is why we are much more likely to buy into the story of the friendship between an E.T. and a boy from the suburbs than we are into the story of an awkward California teenager who suddenly discovers she is the heiress to a European principality. Or maybe it’s the opposite. Everyone participates in creating their own meaning when we believe the story to be plausible. Story-ing is a participatory process where we matter the story together, yet experience it in our own ways.

In Part I, I suggested that we replace the word History (meaning inquiry) with Phantasia (imagination). The facts we collect in telling stories come from the cuts we make in the totality of all phenomena in the universe. In other words, we draw lines around which facts (to) matter based on our experiences. We use facts like grains of sand to create mandalas, each of us appraising the quality and worth of the creation, knowing it will be swept away in time. There is no solid objectivity because we cannot separate ourselves from the world; there is not one Truth. At the same time, story-ing is a process in which we participate together, so there can be no empty subjectivity, as we are never alone, isolated from the world. Like Deleuze and Guattari, we realize that, “the question is not: Is it true? But: does it work? What new thoughts does it make possible to think? What new emotions does it make possible to feel? What new sensations and perceptions does it open up in the body?”

The storyteller opens up possibilities that we fill with our imaginations (simultaneously a shared and individual experience). The storyteller never (cannot!) gives us every clue because she collects the elements (facts) and organizes them in such a way as to make the story compelling. The audience must, in a participatory process, interpolate (fill in the gaps between what is explicitly put forth) and extrapolate (complete the hint) in order to make meaning of, find coherence in, and become transformed by the story. Painfully pointed and overly explicit messages leave our imaginations fettered to doldrum and awash in anesthesia. No one wants a ready-made story, tasteless and artery clogging. 

This is the shared experience of story-ing. This is the space we create when we participate in story-ing. We bring in (all) our past, present, and futures into this participation as a performative act. Reality is dynamic and relational, as we continuously shape and respond to one another.

I often look at the etymological roots of the words I use. This not out of pedantry, but irony. I realize that the contemporary uses of words are different from their Proto-Indo-European roots. This is more of a game for me, but also more than a game. Seeking precision when we want to communicate is absurd because communication is a participatory act of interpretation. We are like Achilles trying to catch Zeno’s tortoise: no matter how specific we can be, we will never catch up to the audience’s imagination. Nor should we want to, lest we suffocate the imagination.

Words matter because they create things (matter) from no-thing. Since nothing is permanent, words are not permanent. Of course, words change as language changes; that is widely accepted. “Gender” as a word originates from the grammatical classification of nouns and pronouns into masculine, feminine, neuter. Today, the word is more connected with identity and is highly politicized.[2]I wonder how the lack of distinction between masculine, feminine, neuter nouns and pronouns in the English language has accelerated this process. Freedom, democracy, justice, learning, sustainability… these are all concepts that we try to crystalize with words, but when we do so, we fail to appreciate that words are fluid. They cannot be crystalized. On my podcast, I have stopped asking people “how do you define learning?” Because definitions suggest something is definite. Even when I did ask that question, no one had the same “definition.” We could play the same game with democracy. Do we have a shared understanding of what democracy is?

We try to crystalize words, but they remain fluid. Words like freedom, democracy, justice, learning, sustainability… are dynamic (alive!) with the history past and the history to come. When we crystallize “democracy” into a word, we do so from the ancient (slave-owning) Athenians, from the Magna Carta, from the American Revolution, from the Paris Commune, from struggles in the Global South to topple authoritarianism (most often supported by the “democratic” Global North)… but we do so also (but not enough!) from politico-communal structures of First Nations such as the Iroquois Confederacy, the Ewe people of Ghana, the Māori and their wharenui assemblies, and dorbar shnong councils of the Khasi of India. We crystalize the word with our hopes weaved of visions of a more equitable world, where freedom of speech and choice are primordial. The past and the futures are entangled and create our historical futures within the global-local entanglement.

When we use words like “democracy,” we look at the map and not the territory, whose landscape is ever-changing. Words are useful, but they cannot capture time, space, and values. They are personal, emotional, elusive, and treacherous. Mattering words is an ethico-onto-epistemological participatory event. And like every event, these matterings, these objectifications, come to an end. As Anna Tsing writes, we “need names [words] to give substance to noticing, but [we] need them as [words]-in-motion” because names [words] do not capture either the particularity of something or its position within sometimes rapid collective transformations. You cannot at the same time know the position and the momentum of some-thing.

Slowly I come to one of the purposes of this article: I hear and read so many people rejecting what they call binaries, as if binaries were real things to reject or imaginary things to disbelieve. Binaries are in motion as well. We matter worlds of complementary contradictions and contradictory complements. Words create binaries (distinctions between what is and what is not), but these binaries are no more permanent than words. They exist as a map. Some maps are more useful than others for certain situations, but they are not real.

Example: I write of the inner work that is needed for us to respond to the world in ways that bring about the worlds we want. The inner world contrasts with the outer world, but this is not a binary! not a permanent one at least. I draw the line in pencil. I can re-draw it according to whether I mean personal, group or civilizational—words that also create binaries that don’t exist permanently and are also penciled delineations. Words are fluid. They take the shape of the container . Where does the inner end and the outer begin?

The problem isn’t binaries, it’s absolutes. When we think in absolutes, words are permanent! concepts are fixed! there is Truth! Absolutes isolate—physically, metaphorically, ideologically—and bring about monads (or unitary worlds). There is always space in-between binaries because binaries are never disconnected from one another (these would be monads). This is the Yin and the Yang, the wave-particle duality, the entanglements that are fundamental aspects of reality in the universe. 

Binaries are inevitable because we use words, and they shouldn’t be eschewed off hand. Binaries can be useful if we remember that they are non-permanent, that there is always an in-between, and binaries emerge as tools, but they are not ends. We should be wary when we consider things as separate, in permanent opposition and absolute. It is the absolute that is the danger. Yin and the Yang are not absolutes and neither are waves and particles. Neither are good and evil, light and dark, inner and outer. Complementary contradictions and contradictory complements are superpositions

This is where interpolation and extrapolation come in, filling in the gaps between what is explicitly put forth and completing the hint. No, we don’t want to make false assumptions. No, we don’t want to distort or tell untruths. And we don’t want to impose our perspectives on someone else’s story. No.

We stay curious and connective. We don’t take things for face value and we ask questions. We appreciate that no story is the same for two people (or for ourselves at different points in time) and we open ourselves up—no assumptions!—to other perspectives. We engage in critical reflexivity, noticing our situatedness and, rather than ignore the gaps, we fill them ourselves. We make the story our story, but one that is also yours and also mine, and yet neither of ours to own. A story that is fluid.

And perhaps then, we will move beyond the containers of words and the assumption that we share their meaning. Perhaps then we will feel words and feel stories. There is nothing to hold onto, so we connect with feeling. 

We won’t need to define  freedom, democracy, justice, learning, sustainability, and so forth. We will feel what freedom means. We will feel what justice looks like. We will feel it when learning takes place.

Words are there to be co-opted. We use words to provoke, to frame, to fly the flag of our positionality. Then the words are taken from us. Empire captures our words, imprisons them, and releases them back into the not-so-wild deformed and mutilated. After you’ve finished this article, go to your search bar and type in “regenerative” and the name of the largest cola company in the world and see what comes up. See how “regenerative” is stripped of all meaning, all connections, an unrecognizable monstrosity of corporate violence.

German philosopher and critic of the Enlightenment Johann Georg Hamann said that language is “the central point from which proceed the misunderstandings of reason by herself.” That is not to say that feelings cannot be misunderstood, but when we engage in story-ing, the connections and empathy we cultivate go beyond words; they are based on feeling, on our physiological need to feel together. Hence why the stories we tell are so important: they create feeling.

What do words even mean? 

What would it take to write stories without words?[3]The importance of the Arts shine through as we tell stories through dance, music, picture books, silent films, sculpture, and an infinite number of media. These stories exist between us and are … Continue reading

Why does this matter? Because it is only when we let go of the sacrosanctity of words—that can be misunderstood, coopted, and yes, weaponized—that we can engage in dialogue. It is only when we listen with our hearts that we can extend our empathy, compassion and love. It is only when we appreciate that we don’t all speak the same language that we seek other means to connect.

Nature doesn’t speak human. Perhaps we should stop with our words so that we can connect with Nature, no longer listening for human words we (mis)understand, but rather listening to the language of Nature that is more ancient than humans. The sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and feelings of Nature. 

As we stop confusing binaries with absolutes, mistaking the real for the useful, seeing ourselves as separate from the world, we participate in story-ing as Nature. We feel what words are supposed to mean. We feel in order to connect. Just like we were made to do.

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Benjamin Freud, Ph.D. for Intrepid Ed News.


1 Suspension of disbelief is a tacit agreement between the storyteller and the audience to compromise for the sake of the experience. We all have different limits to how far we are willing to compromise.
2 I wonder how the lack of distinction between masculine, feminine, neuter nouns and pronouns in the English language has accelerated this process.
3 The importance of the Arts shine through as we tell stories through dance, music, picture books, silent films, sculpture, and an infinite number of media. These stories exist between us and are expressions, interpolations, and extrapolations of feeling.

Benjamin Freud, Ph.D.

Benjamin Freud, Ph.D. is the co-founder of Coconut Thinking, an advisory that supports schools and learning organizations to co-create, co-develop, co-stress test, and co-implement ideas that nurture the conditions for emergent learning. Benjamin is also the Head of Upper School at Green School, Bali. He was previously the Whole School Leader of Learning and Teaching at Prem Tinsulanonda International School in Thailand. He was the Academic Coordinator at Misk Schools, one of the most prestigious and high-profile school in the kingdom. In 2018-2019, he was also the Head of Upper Primary and Middle School at Misk. Prior to this, he was Vice-Principal of the Middle School and High School at the Harbour School in Hong Kong. He holds a Ph.D. in History, an MSc in Education, an MBA, an MA in International Relations, and a BA in International Affairs. Benjamin was born and grew up in Paris, France. He moved to the U.S. when he was 15 and spent 11 years there in different cities before living in the U.K., Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, and now Bali, Indonesia. He started his career in consulting for Internet start-ups in Silicon Valley in the late 1990s, working with people whose ambitions were no less than to change the world. This experience had a profound effect on Benjamin's outlook on education, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *