Humans have told stories to each other for thousands of years. Before the advent of widespread literacy, the oral transmission of stories was a primary form of entertainment and instruction.
Some of these stories have been preserved as folktales or epic poems and can be quite lengthy, running to thousands of lines. Storytelling thus exemplifies a complex cognitive task, placing great demands on short-term, working, and long-term memory.
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To offset this cognitive load, storytellers have used mnemonic aids to assist them. These include the repetition of certain phrases, such as the many instances of “swift-footed Achilles” in the Iliad, as well as metrical lines with rhyming couplets, used by English poets and dramatists like Shakespeare.
When Hamlet exclaims, “The play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,” the word “thing” serves as a retrieval cue for “king.” Of course, most of us can’t write like Shakespeare, but we all tell stories of one type or another. What happens to the storytelling ability of people as they grow older?
As might be expected, age-related declines in working memory seem to exact a toll on several aspects of older adults’ storytelling abilities. Susan Kemper and her colleagues asked participants (age range: 60–90) to “tell us a story—a made up story like you might tell a child.… You could decide to retell a familiar story or make one up from scratch.”
The researchers then analysed these personal and fantasy narratives in terms of their narrative structure, grammatical complexity, content, and cohesion (in other words, how well the parts of a narrative are linked to one another).
Participants in their eighties produced narratives that were more structurally complex than those provided by participants in their sixties. (More structurally complex stories had more causally connected elements, or they included a coda or a moral.) However, the older group’s sentences were less grammatically complex and less cohesive.
The researchers suggested that this pattern reflects declines in working memory. However, the increase in structural complexity may be due to deliberate choices made by the older adults to provide information about a story’s setting and the narrator’s personal opinions about the tale they were telling.
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Experiments comparing college students to older adults also suggest differences in storytelling. In one study, when asked to retell a story, older adults produced narratives that were more integrative or interpretive than those told by the undergraduates.
Nonetheless, both younger and older participants recalled stories with similar degrees of accuracy. Younger and older adults also agreed on what constitutes a good story, probably because they possess a similar, albeit implicit, understanding of story quality.
Does a lifetime of experience telling stories lead to better storytelling? Some evidence points in that direction. Kemper and her colleagues found that judges characterised the stories of older adults (age range: 60–92) to be more clear and interesting than those produced by younger adults (age range: 18–28).
A similar study by Michael Pratt and Susan Robins found that the personal narratives of older participants were perceived to be of higher quality than the productions of younger subjects.
Nancy Mergler and her collaborators asked college students to recall sections of prose that had been recorded by three groups of people: peers (aged 20 and 21), middle-aged adults (40 and 49), and older adults (67 and 82). The students remembered more of the incidental details in the segments recorded by the older adults, and when the passages were stories, the students evaluated the older speakers more favourably than the other narrators.
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However, this was not the case when the passage was simply a descriptive one. The researchers speculate that the physical characteristics of the voices of older people “lead to more effective oral transmission.”
In addition, the difference in favourability ratings suggests that people have expectations about receiving particular kinds of information from older people. Older adults tend to speak more slowly and may alter their pitch and rhythm in ways that add interest to what they are saying.
Finally, such effects may reflect a conscious attempt by older adults to make stories as entertaining as possible, as opposed to being objectively accurate. Or perhaps the experiment evoked memories in the participants of being read to by their parents and grandparents when they were younger!
Although a storyteller is just one person, people often tell stories together. For example, a couple at a dinner party might relate an amusing anecdote to the other guests, with each partner taking turns, or perhaps interrupting each other to fill in important details or provide an alternate version of events.
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A study that compared how younger and older couples cope with the demands of collaborative storytelling found few differences between the age groups. With regard to the amount of information recalled, older male participants recalled less than the younger adults, whereas older women did not. The reasons for this difference are unclear.
In addition, the study found no difference in the ability of older and younger adults to tell stories collaboratively. They tell them just as well with people they know as they do with new acquaintances.
Differences in collaborative storytelling become more apparent, however, in the ways in which couples tell their stories. For example, in a study where couples were asked to discuss a vacation, older couples talked more about people and places, while younger couples talked more about their itinerary.
In addition, older couples tended to tell different parts of the story individually—taking over from each other as the topic shifted. Younger couples interacted more with each other and told all parts of the story together.
In a similar vein, older couples also appear to do well in tasks of collaborative problem solving. Since older couples seem to work well together telling stories and solving problems, working with a partner might be another way to help compensate for any age-related declines in cognitive ability. It seems, therefore, that two heads really are better than one.
Changing Minds: How Aging Affects Language and How Language Affects Aging by Roger Kreuz and Richard Roberts (£22.50, MIT Press) is out on 1 October 2019.