The “story” of Iceland and Greenland

Once upon a time, war broke out among Norwegian Vikings. One band launched the boats and fled. They discovered a green island and settled. Afraid that their enemies might pursue them, they sent word back to Norway that their island was actually an ice-land, but that another island — more distant, larger and indeed covered by ice — was inhabitable green-land. And so the green island became Iceland, and the icy island became Greenland.

This story is fiction, which is to say false.

The true (non-fiction) story of Iceland’s founding is more complicated and had something to do with Ingolfur Arnason (above), a Norse chieftain who founded Reykjavik in 874.

Greenland, meanwhile, was not “discovered” (by Norsemen, that is) until a century or so later, when a Norwegian who was sailing to Iceland was blown off course. It was later named “green land” by Erik the Red, another Norwegian, who really was fleeing from Norway and first went to Iceland before settling in Greenland. He wanted to bring more settlers and was obviously good at branding and marketing — “green jobs” for his “green economy”, if you will.

Fiction trumps non-fiction

I heard the first version — ie, the fictional account — at some point when I was young and I never forgot it. Even when I learned that the real history was different, I could never quite keep its details together in my memory and returned in my mind to the fictional account. To me, that’s how it happened. And that is odd.

Melanie Green

I was reminded of this when I read about the research of Melanie Green (perhaps the “green” did it). She is a social psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and another of the researchers in the Scientific American article I discussed in the previous post.

She found that when information is presented as “fact” or non-fiction, people switch on their critical-analysis brain, whereas when information is presented as fiction, they switch on their story brains. And story brains are much more receptive and open than analytical brains, as mine was when I first heard the story about Iceland and Greenland. (In fact, I tried to “prime” your story brain, too, by opening with Once upon a time).

But once we accept a fictional story, it is in us and affects the “real” world. The article gives the example of the 2005 film Sideways, in which a cranky but lovable wine snob refuses to stoop to Merlot. Well, Merlot sales plummeted after the film, because people (like me) had accepted the story. We all started drinking Pinot Noir. I’m slightly embarrassed by it, in fact.

Lesson (for all areas of life): Never underestimate the power of narrative.

Other tidbits

A few other points of interest or research areas mentioned in the article:

Theory of Mind

Our human brains appear to be wired for stories. The key is our human Theory of Mind, our ability to attribute awareness and intent to other creatures and even objects (which most other animals seem not to have).

Children develop Theory of Mind around age four or five. Which perhaps explains why picture books for two-year-olds are not yet stories but pictures of objects without much connection. Once the kids have Theory of Mind, however, everything becomes a story, whether it involves trains (Thomas!) or worms or blocks.

Empathy and immersion

The best stories captivate us so much that psychologists speak of “narrative transport.” That’s what we authors all hope to achieve, in part by empathizing with our audience, as I have written previously. But it’s actually the audience who must empathize, and

the more empathetic a person, the more easily he or she slips into narrative transport.

Social cohesion

I’ve mentioned Robin Dunbar before, when I talked about Facebook and human group size. Well, Dunbar also has a lot to say about storytelling, it turns out. As our ancestors evolved to live in groups, apparently, they kept track of — and reinforced — their complex social relationships through … storytelling.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

I’ve written before about Abe Maslow and his hierarchy of needs, and have even compared that hierarchy to the chakras in Yoga. Well, I should have extended the idea to storytelling.

Patrick Colm Hogan, a professor of comparative literature at the University of Connecticut, has found three narrative prototypes in almost all human stories:

  1. Romantic scenarios, (= the trials and travails of love)
  2. Heroic scenarios (= power struggles).
  3. “Sacrificial” scenarios (= agrarian plenty or famine)

These correspond neatly to the lower three chakras (survival, sex, power), or the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid of needs. No surprise there, I suppose.

47 thoughts on “The “story” of Iceland and Greenland

  1. Excellent explanation. I say that probably because I agree wholeheartedly with the premise. Storytelling, like education, is programming. We program our children to function within society according to societal norms.

    I have one comment/hypothesis, however…

    Children develop Theory of Mind around age four or five. Which perhaps explains why picture books for two-year-olds are not yet stories but pictures of objects without much connection.

    I believe that children are aided in developing that Theory of Mind by reading and telling stories to the child as soon as the child is willing to sit still long enough to listen. I started telling stories to my son at about age 3. I may have informally started that story telling even before that. Ostensibly, it was to lull him to sleep most of the time and a replacement for lullabies. But I did it. Short stories, nothing involved, no complex underlying morals or life lessons, but stories just the same.

    • Oh, absolutely. I started telling and reading stories to my wee’uns when they were … still in utero! But whether it was I or they who benefited most is moot.

  2. “……….I heard the first version — ie, the fictional account — at some point when I was young and I never forgot it. Even when I learned that the real history was different, I could never quite keep its details together in my memory and returned in my mind to the fictional account………”

    Another reason the fictional story has remained uppermost in your mind is because it was the version of the history of Iceland and Greenland which you heard first, whether or not it was fiction.

    As this article says , it’s the version of an event which we hear first, that sticks in our long-term memory, despite that the first version is shown later to be demonstrably false, whence we learn a totally different version of what was originally told us.

    The newer version does stick in our mind for a time, then withers away, to be overshadowed once again by the first version. This explains the difficulties of myth-busters.

    I, myself, have re-visited neighbourhoods decades after I first was there when growing up. They (the neighbourhoods) looked considerably different when I re-visited them. But when I think of them now, I once again see them in my mind as they were when I was growing up.

    As with me, so this phenomenon probably is with most others.

    • nice article phil. i’d go so far as to say “it’s the version of an event which we hear first” that we tend to believe as true.

      perhaps it’s the same mechanism at work as “first impressions” being lasting impressions. countless people have written article on the subject.

      the article also says that neither refuting the first version nor remaining silent seem to help change the impact of “the first version of the story”. 😦

    • the article also says that neither refuting the first version nor remaining silent seem to help change the impact of “the first version of the story”

      I would say that this is more likely because the first version is more widely spread and repeated. That the refuting voice is that “voice in the wilderness”. We are perhaps naturally skeptical of changes to what we believe and that what we believe is reinforced over time (and through repetition) so that a counter story, a refutation, is met with more resistance the later it is heard.

      As in Phil’s case with his neighborhood, the “myth” of the neighborhood was reinforced over time (perhaps within his own mind or in his telling of stories about it) so that his return visit could not easily dislodge it.

      There is something of this underlying the Big Lie theory.

      Big Lie tactic is a propaganda device often associated with the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. Simply, it is this: if those in authority repeat an outrageous falsehood over and over, and there is no countervailing voice exposing this big lie to the public, or if that voice is censored by the media, the big lie is likely to be believed.

      The “moral” to this “story” is to get out your version of the truth and get it repeated as much as possible to as many as possible before your opponents get an opportunity to refute it.

      This is also known as “politics”. 🙂

    • This may be another instance of “ought” vs “is” and of the importance of investigating the “is” no matter how much you yearn for the “ought”.

      The article cites the example of the WMD myth that is still alive (ie, that Saddam had weapons, or indeed links to Al Qaida) Perhaps because people heard it first, or perhaps because they heard it over and over again from Dick Cheney, they continue to believe it.

      Again, the power of narrative, for good or ill….

    • repetition is not the only reason “first versions” are selectively remembered. george orwell does a great job of exploring/indicting the “is” in “1984”.

      “To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed…”.

    • of course “the suspension of disbelief” which is so important to great stories and great movies was imposed in Orwells’s “1984”, but surrendered voluntarily in Aldous Huxley’s “brave New World”.

      i may be mixing my sci-fi analogies 🙂

    • Quite so, Dafna, repetition is only one means of reinforcement. Orwell’s “1984” was more about how government might control information. His “Ministry of Truth” merely changed all historical references to corroborate the current official version. Since the government also controlled all publishing and news outlets, they could easily change history (or the story) and there was nothing but one’s own memory to refute it. No seeking any independent resource. So, in a sense, the repetition of the false story was there wherever the citizen turned to seek support for the version he once knew. This more falls into the Big Lie theory, I suppose.

      But think how Orwell’s novel showed that the original story, the “first heard” version, could be easily overcome and it (the novel) becomes a counter to the premise. Of course, that isn’t exactly the premise of Andreas’ article. His premise (please correct me if I am wrong, Andreas) is that we tend to believe the version of a history that seems more story-like. We have a less analytical mind-set toward, and therefore are more receptive to, histories presented in a story-book manner. We retain them better (and, possibly, longer) than we do more complex histories.

      I would say we are more receptive to the more entertaining form, like documentaries or historical novels, than we are the less entertaining but factual history forms.

      Vidal Gore excelled in this form. So did James Clavell.

    • hi douglas,

      yes, i think you are on point – the “premise “is” that we tend to believe the version of a history that seems more story-like.”

      also the point is made of the importance of investigating the “is” why do we “have a less analytical mind-set toward, and therefore are more receptive to, histories presented in a story-book manner?”

      you have a very good memory for books. i think in “Brave New World” deals more with a somnolent society that no longer cares what version of the facts (story) it is fed.

    • @Dafna

      you have a very good memory for books. i think in “Brave New World” deals more with a somnolent society that no longer cares what version of the facts (story) it is fed.

      I think that there are strong parallels between Huxley’s and Orwell’s visions of the future. Huxley is not much different in that he sees government controlling the populace and outlawing non-conformity to its view of society. Both envisioned top-down ordered societies where people have their lives determined for them. Orwell saw it in stark, more militaristic, terms while Huxley used more subtle means (genetic manipulation and wholesale sedation).

      I think that Orwell’s citizens no longer cared what truth they were being given either. Just for different reasons.

    • When Shakespeare has Hamlet ask the player to perform the scene of Priam’s slaughter, he has Hamlet employ an unlikely, but facinating, turn of phrase:

      “If it live in your memory, begin at this line”.

      Isn’t that what stories do, “live in our memory,” rather than merely “reside” there, as do facts?

      So, what “lives” in our memory provides “narrative transport”?

  3. I loved this post, Andreas.

    Just the term narrative transport pleases my storytelling soul.
    Twice a week, as you know, I teach at night to an unlikely audience: junior high and high school kids whose parents have, in most cases, forced them to come. Not your captive audience.

    The whole gig circles around clever stories designed to suck kids into grammar and writing. Narrative transport now makes a great deal of sense to me as I watch who will “let me in” and who stubbornly “resists”.

    Yesterday, a woman came in, sat at my desk, and observed that I had been her English teacher in 1989. We exchanged pleasantries, enrolled her son in my class, and then she said, You told the funniest story that I still remember. It was during the blood drive and you told us about trying to gain weight so you could be a blood donor, but you never could get up to 110 lbs! You told us about what you ate in an attempt to participate. I’ve never forgotten that story.

    What made me stop was the fact (not fiction) that I didn’t remember that particular story…

    Thank you for your amazing blog.

    • Great link, Jens!

      I like the two separate seven-prototype lists:

      … “The playwright Stephen Jeffreys lists the proverbial seven basic plots as that of Cinderella (virtue finally recognised), Achilles (the hero with a fatal flaw), Faust (the debt that must be paid), Tristan and Isolde (the eternal triangle), Circe (the spider and the fly), Orpheus (the gift withdrawn) and Romeo and Juliet (boy meets girl). In his book The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker has come up with an overlapping list: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth….”

      And a great conclusion, which I perhaps was unwittingly aware of when writing my book:

      “…So although character is revealed to us through the rules of drama, it is in many ways its wild card, the element that breaks through the limitations of the play’s predictable project, providing the surprising reversal which makes each individual play unique. And it’s the moment of the character’s rebellion, the moment of the “but”, which transforms the stereotype into a character, undermines or reverses the play’s project, and reveals what’s really going on….”

    • Interesting article, Thomas. I wonder if she realized she also was turning to The Iliad to “spin” her version of war and its meaning? She is right about that part. And about the horrors of war and what it does to both soldier and non-combatant caught up in it.

      One of the “truths” of Iliad is that “winning” and “losing” a war may be difficult to, perhaps impossible, to determine.

      I do find it hard to accept her premise that the Greeks lost. Though I cannot honestly say they won, either. My view is, if all of your men are slaughtered, your city burned to the ground, most of your women and children either slain or taken as slaves, then you might say you lost. And that was Troy’s fate.

      There is one camp that says there was no Trojan War and another that says there was. Among each side there are many variations on the theories.

    • Very interesting observations–especially when you factor in the passage of time. Who “won” WWII? Compare the British and the French today with Germany and Japan.

      Another interesting thing about the Illiad and narrative is that (and this is just my experience) is that because the Illiad was written by a Greek, originally we were taught that the Greeks were the more “advanced” and sophisticated civilization, that Troy was an outpost obviously full of renegades. But the revisionist view (and forgive me, captured well in the movie a few years ago) is that the Greeks were barbarians and Troy and the Trojans were the sophisticates. Anyone else have that sense?

    • Who “won” WWII? Compare the British and the French today with Germany and Japan.

      Not the then governments of Germany or Japan. The people of those nations did wind up much better off than they might have had their respective governments of the period won that war. Out of almost total destruction of those two nations arose reformed governments and modern cultures that prospered. That might not have been their fate if the Allies had lost. You might also consider the USSR. It was also a victor in WWII.

      Your other point is also well made. History is written by the victors. Either by those that outlasted their enemies or those that crushed them in war. The real history may be quite different than the accepted one.

    • so andreas,

      why “is’ it that we tend to believe the more-story-like versions of history? did i miss the blog/posts relating to the “why”?

    • opps posted wrong spot.

      great point thomas and douglas – winning and losing “great impostures”? or is that a leap?

      there is a great story in “zen shorts” about this.

    • I was wandering about the web trying to find a simple definition for narrative transport to help explain the “why” when a comment on another blog provided a pair of words… Star Trek… Not just the saga, the series (of stories), but a specific subsection revolving around the Holodeck. Within that deck, the users were “transported” into the novel or story.

      As children, we easily imagine ourselves within the stories our parents might have told us. It may be something hard-wired into our brains that allows us to do so. And that may be what is tapped by narrative histories (or myths) which allows us to ingrain them into our minds more easily than the drier, more accurate, explanations of history.

      It may also be why we tend to believe in ghosts even as adults.

    • douglas,

      thanks for the reply. the topic of the blog is interesting, however, we all respond to what we find most significant.
      “narrative transport” or “suspension of disbelief” is a magical and necessary thing when it comes to works of fiction.

      and it is a fact that our “story brains are much more receptive and open”. according to the scientific america article because of familiarity with the story or capacity for empathy. all well and dandy.

      fact: our more receptive story brains ARE manipulated by “politics” (through repetition, or through deliberate use of misrepresenting facts in story-like format). fact: that (as phil’s linked article states) humans are prone to believe whatever version of the truth we hear first.

      these facts which have gone undisputed on the blog seem far more interesting a topics to me. it’s the “why” and the lack of emphasis on the “why” that i find disturbing.

      humanity has changed and adapted to the way we learn:

      the last paragraph in the scientific america article is entitled “Happily Ever After” – very scary since it makes reference to people changing their behavior based on the narrative of movies. the assumption is that researchers are “looking for ways to harness the power of storytelling” for good ends.

      i like your hypothesis very much about stories told by parents being easily ingrained in our minds because i would add “as children we trust the source”. that might be a big clue as to the “why'” of storytelling’s power over fact. we readily suspend disbelief when we trust the source?

      the most benign example of the misuse of the “fact” that we are easily susceptible to stories and readily surrender to narrative transport even when presented with the facts is “testimonial advertising”. it’s has a very high success rate.

      rhetorical, polemic or rant – “why does the why of this human condition seem to hold little interest?” it reeks of herd mentality.

      do we imagine ourselves immune? i can say on the most banal level, i am a parent and my mother a teacher, and we both know that if an issues arises, it is literally a race to see who gets their story to the “authority figure” first, because thats the story that sticks.

      which makes me think perhaps i need to re-read Gladwells’ “tipping point”.

    • that might be a big clue as to the “why’” of storytelling’s power over fact. we readily suspend disbelief when we trust the source?

      Of your many good points/questions, Dafna, I like this one the best. It may be part of the “programming” process we go through as we are molded into members of a society. A fact you might consider is the “why” we accept authority figures. When we are infants, we bond with parents (even surrogate parents); think of it as “imprinting”. These become our primary authority figures. They then instill certain values, presumably according to the traditions they were taught, upon us. We get these values reinforced throughout our early lives through repetition (schooling in the modern world) which often overrides contradicting life lessons. We grow up with a belief in authority figures (probably “hard-wired” by biology) and that is at the core of your “why”.

      Of course, not everyone accepts the programming the same; most do (that “herd mentality” you mentioned), however, while some seek the authority and some others rebel against it.

      But Andreas seems to be exploring the “nuts and bolts” of the programming rather than they motives underlying it. Which may explain, if I am right, why you do not see more questions like “why do we do that?” variety here.

      All of the above is merely my opinion, nothing more.

    • A great article, Thomas. thanks!

      I, too, have a vague sense that the Greeks considered the Trojans (“Phrygians, Asians, Easterners…”) culturally advanced, whereas they, the Greeks, were still in their dark ages.

      Incidentally, I’ve always wondered who the Trojans were. Hitites? Indo-Europeans? Perhaps even … Greeks?

      There is nothing in the Iliad or the Aeneid to suggest taht they are ethnically or liguistically very different from the Greeks. And, of course, the Greeks did not yet have the concept “Greek”. they were Achaeans, Argives, Danaans, and so forth. I think that Greekness came later, and looked back to the catalogue of ships in the Iliad as a way to define “Greek”.

      Regarding who won or lost: Troy, the city lost. But if you read the Aeneid, which I’m devouring right now, you get the sense that the Trojans won. Their survivors, led by Aeneas, founded the Roman race, and went on to rule the world, including the Greeks….

    • Sounds like a king descended from the gods story, doesn’t it? Most, if not all, kings claimed some divine lineage. The last major figures being Japanese emperors, I believe.

    • You’ve probably seen this, but there is a great book (also done into an excellent BBC TV series) called In Search of the Trojan War by Michael Wood. It is a very open ended discussion about various theories as to whether the Illiad is true and what historical events it may have been based on. Wood makes a fairly compelling case that the Trojan War may have been a dispute between the Hittites and the Greeks.

      He also has some very interesting discussions about the Trojan Horse. One theory he puts forth is that (a) that area of Asia Minor is prone to earthquakes, (b) there is what appears to be earthquake damage in some of the Troy strata cities that coincide with the Bronze Age (even Schliemann thought he saw evidence of earthquakes ), and (c) the Greeks thought earthquakes were caused by Poseidon and he was often associated with a horse figure.
      The idea is that the city was destroyed by and earthquake and the Greeks left a carved horse figurine as an offering of thanks to Poseidon for doing their work for them. Who knows?

    • I wish I had seen that. I understand it is available on DVD (360 minutes on two discs) through PBS, maybe elsewhere. There is also a book, available at my local library, which I will try to grab.

      I am reminded of a childhood “game” (and, often, classroom demonstration) where a phrase or sentence is whispered in the ear of one child and then that child repeats it in a whisper to the next and so on until the last child speaks it out loud. It is predictably almost unrecognizable from the initial phrase or sentence. The game (or lesson) is about how rumors get distorted but it also applies to oral histories.

      Before histories of a people were written, they were handed down by “story tellers” who may be seen as the first teachers (especially when they combine with masters to which children were apprenticed). These oral histories became myths and legends, I believe. They all likely have some basis in real events but, over the years and the countless re-tellings, became distorted and embellished.

      It may be easy enough to edit out the interventions of the various gods but to discern a history from myth must require some great detective work.

    • I hope you enjoy the DVD–it also has some great music! He also talks at length about how the war had taken place about a century before Homer and the story came to him orally, so who knows what sorts of transmogrification may have taken place. One of these days we should discuss the same effect on the Bible!

  4. The first version isn’t entirely false; it’s just embellished. As you note, Erik the Red was indeed fleeing Norway and coined a false name for Greenland.

  5. Delightful article! Thank you. I learned a bit of history, got to laugh at the story too.

    I remember long-ago telling my social-worker friend how much easier it would be to teach history if it were presented as a story, rather than boring outlines with dates. I wonder if he was thinking about the power of narrative transport…

    Maybe it’s not necessarily the first story, but the most entertaining story that sticks with us. The lack of critical thinking invoked by the premise of a fictional tale certainly sheds light on the gullibility we witness these days.

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