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The Storytelling Animal

Mooli LahadFilmed at UJIA Sippur 2015

Since cave men started painting on walls, human beings have been telling stories. But why, when there are surely much more urgent tasks for survival? In this talk, I argue that creativity is a basic need, and without this ability, we humans - and we Jews - would not have survived. And as a trauma psychologist, I explain how storytelling helps us to recover from traumatic experiences in our lives.

Professor Mooli Lahad is an Israeli psychologist and psychotrauma specialist, known for his resiliency model, creative methods of intervention and treatment of stress. He is the founder and Head of the MA in Dramatherapy, at Tel Hai College and President of the CSPC – The International Stress Prevention Centre at in Kiryat Shmona, Israel. He is also Professor of Psychology at Tel Hai College and was a visiting Professor of Dramatherapy at Surrey University, England. Lahad champions the application of creative approaches such as dramatherapy and bibliotherapy in the prevention and treatment of psychotrauma.

Storytelling and creativity are essential components of healing.

Now for this talk I would like to focus on two main issues on the need for storytelling. The first thing I would like to speak about is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. As you all can see, here at the bottom we have the physiological needs, these are the basic needs of human beings for survival. Then at the top, you have the self-actualisation which includes creativity and spontaneity. Now if you think about it then how about this following image which comes up now. Why if creativity is at the top the cavemen would do their drawings, some 45,000 years ago. If you just think about it 45,000 years ago cave drawings, you will understand that this was a very very difficult job to do. There was a job to go into the cave, very deep in the mountain, there was a job to take the sacred fire in order to see things, it was a job that you couldn’t do without asking for any permission, it was a job that was somehow appreciated by your group. In fact if we look at it we could see that if that for that specific project one should have taken the holy, sacred fire that was not so easy to maintain and this fire would have various tasks. One was of course to protect them, the other was to warm the food, to warm the cave and of course it was very very holy. Now if you think about that fact and you think about how difficult times were for them you would ask yourself, “if they have to hunt every day for their food why would they do this foolish thing and paint on these walls?” Do you know how many drawings are on these walls? In fact there are over 2000 drawings and so one could ask, “why?” And so there are many many assumptions as to why people draw these images. Still today when we look at children that are very fearful, we encourage them to draw images in order for them to get hold of their fears. So this could be one reason. The other reason of course could be that this was a process where they were preparing themselves for hunting. There are many anthropological studies that show that for these people, in tribes, to prepare for this dangerous job of hunting they have to go through some ritual of preparation. Lastly, of course, it is kind of a group storytelling to share something they have done and feel more empowered. But honestly we don’t really know why they put these images on the wall. Probably we are the only animal that we know that have the sense of future. Every animal on this planet has at least two other notions. One is present, they all live in the present otherwise they wouldn’t survive. They all have past; you can imagine that everything that happens to this specific animal goes on with that animal for the rest of its life. However, none have a future. If we go back to the cave drawings, one thing I kind of dismissed, it’s all to do with fear. What is that fear? The fear of the future, may it be foreseeable or unforeseeable, is known to the human being. The human species is the only entity, animal, living on this planet that knows it’s finite. From a very early age we know children at the age of three may ask about life and also about death. As they grow up at the age of nine they have a full concept of death and so when they ask questions they ask about themselves as well as about others. Let’s go back to the cavemen. They had to reassure themselves of something they noticed. They noticed that suddenly the sun disappears, suddenly the moon disappears, suddenly there is no sun altogether and its cold and dark especially on the Northern hemisphere and they had to explain to themselves what’s going on. And so they start telling myths and stories, they start to share with each other what is going on. They develop the ability to plan, they develop the ability to transmit this knowledge from one generation to the other and develop what we call values and memory and history. Now as you all know history can be separated to two words, “his” “story”. If I may be PC I should say “his and hers story”. Now probably and that’s what we believe nowadays, we survived as a result of the fact that we could tell stories. We actually conquered this planet from much stronger animals, much faster animals, because we were able to tell stories; Stories that were to do with gossip, as well as to do with planning as well as to do with remembering. But when you talk about remembering shouldn’t we just look at this image and remember that in fact, we the Jewish people, have a lot of joint memory or communal memory that helps us through history to maintain this ability to look into the most tragic times with a glimpse of hope. One could argue that the Torah’s requirement to tell the story of Exodus is Jewish traditions’ clever way to help us keep a glimpse of hope in times where darkness prevails, showing us that suffering, pain and sorrow are not an accident in life but they are a part of life as much as joy and happiness. It instructs to see in all generations the duty of man to consider himself as if he had come forth from Egypt. This command in still instilling this story of the Jewish people and has been keeping us alive through generations, through traumas and moments of despair. It is our collective story which has helped us to maintain our identity and heal ourselves each time we have faced trauma. But how is trauma connected to storytelling? And how does storytelling heal trauma? Well, let me share with you what trauma is. Trauma is basically a moment in time that for some of us happened and somehow shattered our sense of continuity. Suddenly yesterday does not at all predict tomorrow. Trauma is a frozen story in time, we are entrapped in this story, we are frightened, we have nightmares, we have lots and lots of problems and one of the things we have learned in the Community Stress Prevention Centre, where I have worked for the last 35 years, is that people who feel traumatised do not play and do not use creativity. And so, they are entrapped in these horrible memories, they are full of imagination but mostly negative ones. And so we started to look into this ability of people to transcend beyond. One of the things that we learned about is that people who have been able in the times of trauma, to be in a bubble or a separate space, what we call “transcend”, they manage to withstand the trauma and when the trauma is over they are okay. One very important thing is that they were able to be playful, when we compare these people to those with PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, we found out that as children, those who were able to go into this tunnel, imagine they are meeting images, imagine they are meeting figures, imagine they are in this wonderful space, were more able to play, share that they were storytellers and share that they were using art and drawings. Based on that, we developed a model of working with the patients through cards, and if you think back to the times of the cave, we basically asked them to look at the cards as much as the caveman was looking at the drawings. The idea is that they will use their creativity and playfulness in order to feel stronger. And so they are encouraged to use their drawings, they are encouraged to use the cards to retell their story, to edit the story, to move things and become more and more playful. And as a trauma psychologist I would like to argue that is the reason why both Homo sapiens and in fact the Jewish people too has survived and thrived. Thank you very much.


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