Tell Me a Story

While spectacular advances in artificial intelligence have been made in fields with narrow, clearly defined applications (chess and the diagnosis of certain medical problems, for example), researchers have found it difficult to simulate via computer the exercise of human intelligence in everyday-life situations. Working with this problem in the 1970’s, Schank and his colleagues developed the concept of “scripts.” A script as Schank defines it is “a set of expectations about what will happen next in a well-understood situation.” Since that time, Schank has written extensively about the ways in which such scripts function (there is a restaurant script, a family-reunion script, a going-to-the-movies script: one for every standard occasion), and readers of his previous books, such as THE COGNITIVE COMPUTER: ON LANGUAGE, LEARNING, AND ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, written with Peter G. Childers (1984), will find much that is familiar in TELL ME A STORY.

In TELL ME A STORY, Schank argues that storytelling (including but not limited to everyday script-making) is at the heart of intelligence. We think of storytelling primarily as entertainment, secondarily as a form of art, yet it also—and perhaps more fundamentally—has a cognitive function: Stories help us organize our experience and define our sense of ourselves. (Despite the emphasis in the subtitle, the role of storytelling in memory is but one of many themes here.) At the same time, Schank challenges preconceptions about the nature of intelligence, which is often identified exclusively with the kind of problem-solving abilities that are measured by IQ tests.

Although Schank’s premises are intriguing, TELL ME A STORY is a disappointing and frustrating book. Schank uses the subject of storytelling as a point of departure for a series of loosely connected reflections. Instead of developing his propositions about storytelling and intelligence he tends to repeat them with slight variations and a penchant for laboring the obvious. The result is a book that fails to live up to its promise.