Humans insatiably seek to discern patterns and explore interrelationships. That drive has enabled us to conquer diseases, study other planets, penetrate the subatomic depths of matter, and decipher our own genetic code. But science has yet to answer our most profound existential questions: Why are we here, what is our place in the universe, what is the nature of consciousness, and what happens to us when we die? For this level of exploration and understanding, humankind has long turned to myth and storytelling.
Throughout the millennia, we have hungered for such illuminations -- from tales of heroes told around campfires by ancient hunter-gatherers, to the epic poetry of the ancients. But with the stunning successes of science over the past several hundred years, the power of myth has been greatly diminished as a means of self-exploration and is now relegated to the realms of blockbuster movies, the occasional media-savvy politician/leader able to frame an issue within a mythic structure, or a particularly iconic photograph.
The Power of Myth
Charles Dickens clearly understood the power of mythic storytelling. Having suffered in British workhouses during his youth, the author originally planned to pen an editorial to a London newspaper on the urban poverty of his day. Instead, he choose to present these same themes within a fictional story -- and A Christmas Carol was born, a work that profoundly altered views on poverty and arguably transformed the Christmas holiday.
Martin Luther King Jr. masterfully presented the civil rights struggle within the Old Testament framework of an oppressed people having "seen the promised land." It was an emotionally powerful use of myth -- a conceptual judo that inverted the civil rights struggle from one of oppression to one of destined ascendance. And the 1960s Apollo-era photographs of the whole earth taken from space were worth a thousand technical tracts on the importance of environmentalism and planetary stewardship.
More recently, rock singer Bono proved the transformative power of mythic framing. A long-time advocate in the battle against global AIDS, Bono sought out arch-conservative senator Jesse Helms, inviting him to dinner. Bono appealed to Helms as a fellow Christian, presenting the battle against AIDS within the Biblical framework of Jesus healing the lepers -- noting that more than 2,000 verses of the Bible pertain to the poor, while Jesus spoke of judgment only once. Senator Helms came away from that evening speaking of a "higher calling" and ultimately authored a bill for $500 million toward battling global AIDS.
But the recent shooting at a Sikh temple by a white supremacist/heavy metal musician illustrates the dark side of myth. As experts in such youth movements have noted, give a susceptible young teen an essay/flyer on white supremacy, and he might read it once. But couch that same content within a rock song narrative, and he'll listen to those words a thousand times.
Recent psychological studies demonstrate the incredible power that mythic framing can exert on human behavior. Participants in studies who are shown altruistic deeds -- from establishing neighborhood gardens, to rock singers helping impoverished communities -- are then more likely to donate money themselves. In another study testing cooperative vs. competitive behavior, only 33 percent of participants cooperated when the study's game was termed "The Wall Street Game," but 70 percent cooperated when that same game was called "The Community Game." These influences on behavior have even been demonstrated at the level of a single word. In one such study, a young woman asking random men for directions to a fictional location of either the neutral "Martin Street," or the emotionally charged "Valentine Street," proved to later influence the men's willingness to assist a stranger in need. Such alterations of behavior are found to be contagious as well, spreading through several degrees of social networks.
Empowered by this renewed understanding of myth and its influence on human affairs, a number of groundswell media movements are taking root in the form of transformational media and evolutionary guidance media programs and initiatives. USC's Hollywood, Health & Society department helps to provide television and movie productions with global health and social transformation messages. Sandra de Castro Buffington, the program's director, pioneered a program of outreach for the Hollywood community in the form of research trips to South Africa and India, to better inform industry creatives on global health issues.
Meanwhile, such figures as transformational speaker Eckhart Tolle and actor Jim Carrey have helped to bring together entertainment industry movers and shakers at the recent GATE (Global Alliance for Transformational Entertainment) gatherings, "a community of creative, business and technical professionals in entertainment, media, and the arts who aspire to consciously transform those domains for the benefit of all, and to create and distribute content that expresses their transformational worldview."
The growing list of such organizations and movements includes the Center for Conscious Creativity (a group of media creators exploring how entertainment content and technologies can help create a better world); the Global Social Change Film Festival and Institute (promoting transformative filmmaking); the Spiritual Cinema Circle (a subscription DVD club featuring inspirational films that might not find traditional Hollywood distribution); and the Institute of Noetic Sciences' recent film festival centered around transformational cinematic works. c3 (Center for Conscious Creativity) also regularly partners with Vortex Immersion Media, melding traditional story telling with the cutting edges of immersive, multimedia technologies.
Facebook and Twitter were immensely powerful aspects of the recent Arab Spring uprisings. In retrospect, it's almost beyond belief that a small band of cyber-connected young people could foment movements that toppled long-entrenched, iron-fisted dictatorships. But in good part, their astonishing power came from a perceived sense of unity and collective mythology propelled by social media. When a young Google marketing exec created a FB page called "We Are All Khaled Mohamed Saeed," in honor of a young man who was brutally killed by Egyptian police, it served as a primary catalyst in the student-led Egyptian revolution -- providing a unifying energy beyond its author's wildest expectations.
Recognizing this groundswell of cyber-era empowerment and social activism, psychologist Dana Klisanin has proposed a new cultural archetype of the "cyberhero" -- those engaged in such explicit digital-era altruism as clicking-to-donate toward social causes, signing/launching e-petitions, and participation in the burgeoning realm of social gaming. Following in the footsteps of the seminal Games for Change, Zynga and the Knight Foundation have recently partnered in developing digital games directed toward social causes. MTV has also teamed with Knight to produce a political game that seeks to more effectively engage the millennial generation in electoral politics. And as part of the growing "gaming for good" movement, Klisanin is developing "The Cyberhero League," a multiplayer, children's online gaming platform directed at instilling a sense of empowerment, environmental stewardship, and social responsibility in the tech-savvy next-generation.
Mythic heroes and storytelling have now traversed an amazing arc from cave paintings and nighttime campfire tales, to the epic poems of the ancient Greeks, to the novel and big screen, to the cutting edges of immersive multi-media, to the social media desktop and smartphone gaming app. With a fresh understanding and appreciation of the power of mythic storytelling, the doors are wide open. So go out and flip the tired old human paradigms of the past down onto the judo mat, dream up your own world of empowered cyberheroes, and spread a new and better global vision.
Steven and Michael Meloan are authors of "The Shroud," a science-adventure novel exploring the spiritual impulse, tribalism and its manifestations in human behavior, and the intersection between science and spirituality.
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