The tyranny of story

In this BBC Radio 4 series, British journalist John Harris examines the potency of narrative, both in the stories that define us as individuals and in those that shape our understanding of the public domain.

Story is ubiquitous – and not simply in the realm of literature and entertainment. From television and advertising to religion, science, business and politics, narratives shape our world. They make connections, explain cause and effect and infer meaning. More than that – stories bewitch us. And recent political events have demonstrated quite how potent they can be.

In the first episode, with the help of psychologist Drew Westen (author of The Political Brain) and Ed Woodcock (Director of Narrative at creative agency Aesop), John deconstructs the stories deeply woven into the two most successful slogans of recent times – Take Back Control and Make America Great Again. He asks neuroscientist Tali Sharot about how our brains are pre-disposed to respond to story, and talks about nostalgia, master narratives and narrative ecologies with Yiannis Gabriel who studies organisational storytelling. John also visits the Brian Haw collection at the Museum of London to see how counter-narratives can become mainstream, and hears from podcaster Chrystal Genesis about the need to allow different voices the opportunity to challenge the prevailing stories of our times.

In the second episode, John reflects on how our understanding of ourselves – and the idea of the self – is shaped by story. He hears from people who are compelled to convey persuasive stories of their lives, for example at the Job Centre, as well as researcher Lynne Friedli who challenges the heroic qualities required by such accounts. John also talks to a therapist who works with narrative Suzanne Elliot, behavioural psychologist Nick Chater who believes we are all brilliant re-inventers of ourselves from one minute to the next, and philosopher Galen Strawson who challenges whether we actually do – or even should – think of ourselves in terms of narrative.

The third episode includes conversations with Yarden Katz of Harvard Medical School, theologian Robert Beckford, neuroscientist Tali Sharot, medical humanities researcher Angela Woods, the writer Bernardine Evaristo and psychotherapist Arabella Kurtz.

The fourth episode will air on 29 December.