Lit Review: Tell Me A Story by Roger Schank

Note: I wrote this last month, but neglected to post it to my blog.

We all love stories.  Bedtime stories, stories around the water cooler, aviation stories told by President Uchtdorf in General Conference.  Abraham Lincoln was loved by many (and scorned by not a few) because of his propensity to respond to any situation with “That reminds me of a story….” As I listen to the young adult novel Goose Girl for my upcoming book club (in which we will share the stories which touch us most), I can tell that storytelling will be increasingly important as the tale continues.  In Tell Me A Story, author Roger Schank explains how stories are powerful not merely as entertainment but as the very core of knowledge and intelligence.  As he does so, he delves into issues of understanding, memory, indices, culture, and artificial intelligence.  In this review, I will summarize the key points of each chapter, and comment on what I found to be most compelling or significant.

Schank opens Chapter 1 (“Knowledge is Stories”) by explaining the concepts of reminding (“the mind’s method of coordinating past events with current events to enable generalization and prediction” (p. 1)) and scripts (sets “of expectations about what will happen next in a well-understood situation” (p. 7)), both of which function as segues into a discussion of knowledge, intelligence, and stories.  For Schank, knowledge “is experiences and stories, and intelligence is the apt use of experience and the creation and telling of stories….  In the end all we have, machine or human, are stories and methods of finding and using those stories” (p. 16).  With intelligence defined as “the ability to tell the right story at the right time, understanding a story means being able to correlate the story we are hearing with one that we already know” (p. 21, italics added).  To make this correlation, we must construct labels (or indices) which can be used to retrieve similar situations.  We then show understanding through “responsive storytelling,” and conversations “are really a series of reminding of already-processed stories” (p. 24).  As we search for a comparable story to share in conversation, we are not trying to remember every detail of the original experience, but to find the “gist” of a story, which we can then transform into language and thus into conversation (p. 25).  Schank closes the chapter by explaining the interactions between stories, gists, language, and conversation:

[T]he problem of generating language can be reduced to the problem of selecting the gist or gists of thousands or millions of not necessarily conscious ideas to be transformed into a particular linguistic expression…. [T]aking one’s part in a conversation means no more than searching for what one has already thought up and saying it….  Even innovative thinking relies upon the mechanisms of reminding and the transformation of existing stories to new situations. (p. 26)

These provocative statements left me with much to chew on.  I’m a horrible joke teller, because I never remember the details of the storyline: does this mean I am missing a key part of intelligence?  What is creativity, if everything relies on merely transforming the old into something new?  How do we better index our memories, so that we may more readily be reminded and have the “just right” story to share in conversation?  Schank does tackle some of these questions in subsequent chapters.

Read the rest of my review here: Lit Review – Tell Me A


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