As a storyteller with a degree in electrical engineering, I’m about as dual-brained as one can get. I attend both the churches of Pathos and Logos. My left brain is filled with the gospels of physics, mathematics, and the creeds of deduction and induction. My right brain is infused with parables of the human condition, such as art, empathy, and symbolism. My bi-modal education helps me to present ideas and teach concepts.
However, dual-membership has its challenges, especially while encountering those with hemispherical bias. For example, someone who equates pure fact with truth is likely to miss the deeper meaning of something. Or, the opposite case, where someone’s reliance on pure emotion gives them false-license to discard facts entirely.
Robert McKee, author of the seminal book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, warns us of relying on fact alone.
“‘The personal story’ is unstructured, slice-of-life portraiture that mistakes verisimilitude for truth. This writer believes that the more precise his observations of day-to-day facts, the more accurate his reportage of what happens, the more truth he tells. But fact, no matter how minutely observed, is truth with a small ‘t.’ Big ‘T’ truth is located behind, beyond, inside, below the surface of things, holding reality together or tearing it apart, and cannot be directly observed. Because this writer only sees what is visible and factual, he is blind to the truth of life.” 1
John Allen Paulos, the author of Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences, demonstrates the unfair advantage that emotion holds over innumerates (folks who don’t understand mathematical probabilities). For example, when presented with the infinitesimally small probability of dying in a plane crash:
“… the innumerate will inevitably respond with the non sequitur, “Yes, but what if you’re that one,” and then nod knowingly, as if they’ve demolished your argument with their penetrating insight. This tendency to personalize is…a characteristic of many people who suffer from innumeracy.” 2
The storyteller cannot live on one side or the other. Attempting to prove a point through dogpiling facts will likely obscure their actual meaning. And without understanding those facts, the fear of dying in a plane crash will likely rule one’s decisions. We need both fact and emotion to tell the whole story.
Edward Tenner, the author of Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences3 uses the car alarm to demonstrate.
- Fact: Car alarms reduce automobile thefts.
- Emotion: Frustrated by the inability to steal silently, auto thieves have resorted to stealing cars with the occupants still in them.
- Full Story: While alarms have reduced the number of stolen parked cars, it has simultaneously increased the number of carjackings. As a result, the technology has transformed a crime of larceny into a crime of violence.
Take a look at your most recent message. List all the facts. List all of the emotions around those facts. Can you create a message that intertwines them?
- Robert McKee, Story: Substance, structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (New York: itbooks, 1997), 23-24.
- John Allen Paulos, Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences (New York: Vintage Books, 1988), 9-10.
- Edward Tenner, Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences (New York: Vintage Books, 1997)
Photo Credit: Library of Congress