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Emotion, Storytelling, and the Human Universals

By Antonio Damasio

The merits of personal storytelling are unquestionable, and they simply cannot be exaggerated. As an adolescent growing up in Europe, I thought I knew about the Holocaust and I certainly knew many of the related historical facts. But the sheer cruelty of the events and the depth of the human tragedy only overwhelmed me when I visited Anne Frank’s attic in Amsterdam and when I read her diary. The events became connected to one individual, and the pain was thus personalized.

The mechanism behind such a strong connection was first discovered by Aristotle, who detected our ability to identify with the characters of a play and assume the characters’ emotions vicariously. Freud concurred, more than two millennia later, in more ways than one, and so does modern neuroscience as it describes the nerve cells and the neural systems that allow each of our brains to assume the role of another person, embody the emotions of that person, and feel a version of their feelings.

So, if one wishes to tell a story to which others can deeply respond and not forget, one should tell a personal story and give it the power to evoke strong emotions and subsequent feelings. There is no dearth of such stories related to the Holocaust, and there is no need to modify them to fit some model of storytelling effectiveness. The entire period of the Holocaust is made up of such personal stories, and the fact that they are available in video version renders them even more effective humanly.

I remember the first time I visited the USC Shoah Foundation and saw and heard the testimonies of survivors. I found the experience no less devastating than that of my long ago visit in Amsterdam.

Are there downsides and risks to the personalization of human drama and its inevitable emotional punch? Indeed there are and they are not small. One well-identified risk concerns the kind of memory that such experiences generate. Emotional power cuts in dual ways. On the one hand it helps produce indelible memory traces; but on the other, beyond a certain level, emotional power blurs details and promotes the memory of generalities, most of all generalities of pain, suffering, and pity, separated from the specific facts that belong to the episode.

A related risk concerns the over personalization of narratives and the effacement of the universal aspects of the situation—moral and political, for example—in favor of incidents. Well-written novels, plays, and films work best when they are personal, no doubt, for all the reasons I gave earlier. But what if the personalized emotion obfuscates deeper realities of historical fact? What if the memories that result from such effective stories favor the panglossian gloss?

I have been impressed by how well the USC Shoah Foundation has navigated these storytelling waters. May it continue to do so, especially as it moves its sights to more recent human horrors whose final consequences are still the same as the Holocaust’s—suffering and destruction of dignity and life — but whose historical and political contexts are not as transparent as those of World War II.

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