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.