Our Story-Telling Minds (with Mini Grey)

(…and how they
get us into trouble…)

Books. They are a
brilliant technology. Simple, portable, easy to mend. And they give us humans a
total superpower compared to all the other animals: a superpower of collected minds, empathy and time-travel.

(Books are
also dangerous and powerful: all tyrannical despots know this and set fire to
them, as do angry mobs.)

Angry mob

The power that
books give us is of building on everyone’s ideas that have ever been written
down, and being able to grow our culture, knowledge and science. Before the
books, there were the stories, and to remember stuff, we remembered through

By Jan Pienkowski

The Memory
Palace is an example of using story for remembering. You imagine a journey
around a location you know well – maybe your own house. Then to memorise a list,
eg of shopping, – you imagine each item in a location along your journey, but
make the image memorable. (There’s a guide here )

By Tom Gauld, from You're All Jealous of My Jetpack

Our minds are wired
for story-telling. The brain is a story-addict. And why? Our instinct for story
is a survival skill. In a prehistoric world full of fangs and tusks and claws,
narrative kept us soft-skinned small-toothed weak-bodied humans alive. We might
have been soft and feeble-bodied (compared to a sabre-toothed Smilodon) but us humans had
imagination and co-operation, and this is where story comes in. To get your
idea to persist and endure from person to person it needs to grip the
imagination and stick in the mind and that’s what stories do – maybe through
the empathy that binds us up with the central character and invests us in how the
story unfolds.

Painting from the Cueva de las Manos

You can watch your
storytelling mind in action using words and pictures.

Here are some objects.

And here are some

Put a caption with
a word, and see what your story-telling mind produces:

Now we do this and change the picture:

What did your mind make? Try again with new words and pictures:

..and then swap the picture...

What did your mind make this time?

If we put pictures in a
sequence – a story happens. We can't help linking those pictures together.

Picture sequence by Blexbolex from Romance/Ballad. You can see more here

Our minds are
constantly trying to build the story, to make the meaning, to understand what’s

But that means we
invest agency where often there isn’t. We constantly attribute meaning and purpose
where maybe there isn’t. That rustle in the grass could be a tiger…but
it could just be the wind. Evolutionarily, the safer strategy is to be overfearful and suspect it's the tiger - because in the unlikely event it IS the tiger, the penalty is death; whereas being overly fearful of wind doesn't have a huge penalty. But from there comes
fear and superstition. I can’t help attributing luckiness to some of my socks,
and I’ve heard of footballers who’ve had to have their lucky pants flown out to
them when they’ve been forgotten. The supernatural and the uncanny are never
far away...

From There's a Ghost in This House by Oliver Jeffers

But then also with
the narrative comes the Happy Ending, which is the only satisfactory way to end your own story. Eternal life in another world seems to be a
much more reasonable ending to life on Earth than non-existence. So Gods become an
essential invention.

A compelling story will transport you - deliciously - into a story world. It uses our empathy to produce an emotional response - strong feelings - plus it makes things memorable.

These things that
make story-telling so powerful: transportation, emotional response, improved
recall – can be misused. Stories can be used to really effectively spread
misinformation – and so we get to conspiracy theories and propaganda that have
all the trademark story ‘stickiness’ in the human brain.

Engraving by Gustave Dore

Lately at our
house we’ve been trying out ChatGPT.

In its own description, ChatGPT is “an AI-powered
chatbot developed by OpenAI, based on the GPT (Generative Pretrained
Transformer) language model. It uses deep learning techniques to generate
human-like responses to text inputs in a conversational manner.”

Well, it turns out to be really rather good
at inventing stories. This is what happened when my partner Tony tried to get it to write a story about me:

 Tony: Can you tell me a short story about
Mini Grey in the style of Jeeves and Wooster?

ChatGPT: I'm afraid I cannot provide a short story
about Mini Grey in the style of Jeeves and Wooster, as they are characters
created by P.G. Wodehouse, and Mini Grey is a real-life children's author and
illustrator. However, I can provide a short story in the style of Jeeves and
Wooster if you would like.

Tony: Yes please!

ChatGPT: Certainly, sir/madam. Here is a short story in
the style of Jeeves and Wooster:

It was a fine morning at the Drones Club, and Bertram
Wooster, that well-known man-about-town, was enjoying a spot of breakfast with
his good friend and fellow member, Bingo Little.

"Jeeves has been suggesting that I read more
books, you know," remarked Bingo, buttering his toast with an air of

"Books, eh? What sort of books, old man?"
inquired Bertie.

"Oh, you know, the classics and suchlike. He
mentioned one by a certain Mini Grey that he thought might be of

"Mini Grey? Sounds like a chap you might bump into
at the club, what? But if Jeeves recommends it, I suppose it must be worth a

And so, Bertie procured a copy of Mini Grey's latest
tome and settled down to read it in the comfort of his bachelor flat.

To his surprise, he found himself thoroughly engrossed
in the tale of a plucky little girl named Traction Man, and his adventures with
his trusty sidekick, Scrubbing Brush.

"Why, this is jolly good stuff, Bingo!"
exclaimed Bertie, upon their next meeting at the club. "I never thought
I'd be one for children's books, but this Mini Grey is a real corker."

Bingo nodded sagely. "I say, Jeeves always knows
best, doesn't he? Perhaps he ought to take up a spot of literary criticism in
his spare time."

"Quite so, old bean. One can never have too many
books to peruse, what?" And with that, the two chums raised their glasses
in a toast to the joys of reading and the impeccable taste of their personal
gentleman's gentleman.

 I was pretty impressed by ChatGPT's Wodehouse effort, on the whole. For a Bot that is basically predicting the next word, it's managing to create something convincingly storylike. In a content-hungry, story-hungry world it may find itself very busy.

So watch out for stories – they can lead us astray….to
fear wolves, to equate the beautiful with the good, and the ugly with the evil,
to expect a happy ending and to exist forever, to believe what we feel is right rather than question our assumptions.

(And don’t get me started about story-book farms….)

But there’s another
picture book illusion that happens because of the stories we tell ourselves, and it goes like this:

The iceberg

When you see a published picture book, you are looking
at an iceberg of Hard Work, and lots of it you cannot see. With the iceberg 80% is invisible and lurking below the water’s
surface. Hiding there are all the other things it has been and the work that
was wrong, the many versions in drawers that didn’t work, the ideas that had to
be cut or abandoned, the rethinking and sweat and struggle. Just as in a magic
trick, we don’t see all the practice that went into making it look effortless.
So sometimes it seems obvious to assume it was easy and
effortless to make - which means that if you're struggling, that is unusual and
it is because you are not somehow talented enough. But you are being sold an

Struggler, you are not alone.

So, to finish, for strugglers everywhere,
here is the Ploughman’s of Persistence.

You just have to put more work into making that thing
than you ever expected.


 Mini’s latest book is The Greatest Show on Earth, published by Puffin.

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