The storytelling animal: why we make stories out of everything

You might have heard that humans are the storytelling animal – not least because I’m always banging on about it – but what does it really mean?

Story is how we think, form societies, communicate information, find connection and innovate. Stories dominate human life in the form of fiction, non-fiction, journalism, court cases, magazines, blogs, zines, film, television, adverts, songs, jingles, plays, sports coverage… as well as dreams and daydreams.

Apparently, we have about 2,000 daydreams each day, equating to about half our waking hours. We daydream about the past and the future, good and bad, wishes and fears, things that happened and things that didn’t happen. And then we sleep dream every night. Story is our default brain activity and you might say we are addicted to it.

There are reasons for this addiction: it’s the way our minds work. Story has made us what we are as a species and continue to underpin human life and culture today. A story-thinking human was a successful human when we lived in caves, and a story-thinking human is a successful human today.

Evolution and the storytelling mind

To understand how storytelling enabled human beings to survive, thrive and become the most successful species on planet earth, we can refer to our evolutionary history. Every person alive today is the offspring of the successful offspring of evolutionary survivors. Each generation has inherited and improved upon their ancestors’ special set of psychological skills – the ones that stopped them being eaten by wolves, falling off cliffs, murdered by other people or failing to protect their babies.

Thanks to evolution, we’ve got a handy symbiotic relationship of storytelling and cognition going on. You can read more about this in The Story of Stories (free bonus with the Story Catcher), but it’s essentially about the pattern recognition skills we’ve made so much of; things like the over-attribution of agency, theory of mind, sequence and causality. Conceptualising ‘story’ is based on these survival skills – and practicing ‘story’ sharpens these cognitive tricks further.

Homo sapiens developed a continuous improvement loop, based on stories, and we still use it to navigate reality today. Not only do humans have the cognitive abilities to conceptualise people/characters and causality/narrative arc, we come pre-programmed to seek them out. Even our mental life takes the form of stories because we process our brain data into sequential streams of consciousness.

Stories are pattern recognition in action. As Brian Boyd states “We therefore have an appetite for information, and especially for pattern, information that falls into meaning arrays from which we can make rich inferences” (On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction, p.14). We actively make sense of the world around us in terms of story.

A culture made of stories

Story is also the conduit for creating and maintaining human culture. We are able to co-exist in societies because of the cultural functions that story provides. Make-believe is the dominant feature of children’s play: it is the process of practicing life skills safely. For human beings, who must learn to function within societies, make-believe play is a way to safely practice living in human society. A lot of it is to do with dealing with ‘trouble’ – such as babies being stolen, people getting set on fire, parents being eaten by tigers, getting lost in the woods…(Kids say the darkest things..!). Infant play is frequently about using storytelling to practice the ‘trouble’ of living in societies.

Story continues to be social training for adults too – we are constantly using our imagination to work out ‘trouble’, whether by watching a TV drama or reading a detective book or writing a song. Evolution has equipped us to learn from other people’s experiences and that’s what stories are about. By attending to real and fictional stories we are all constantly learning how to successfully live in human society.

Stories – our default psychological state – are also the medium for coming up with, communicating and consolidating the shared values of a culture, ensuring that key ingredient for successful societies: cooperation. We also use stories (for example religious stories) to coordinate behaviour within communities. “Stories not only make norms explicit, but also invite us to attend, rouse emotions amplified by our social attunement and solve what economists call the problem of common knowledge… by making us feel that we share these values and react in much the same way (On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction by Brian Boyd, pp.107-108).

What stories are doing to us

Storytelling is at the heart or human relationships. Stories enable us to cooperate, but they are also used to negotiate relations of power. We can see this today in the form of media moguls influencing what we think by controlling news stories and corporations influencing our economic behaviour in the form of advertising stories. The vast majority of stories we encounter in modern life come from corporations teaching us to be obedient consumers, rather than communities or cohorts teaching us about humanity.

And there’s another worrying aspect to our story consumption. We might also be using story to self-medicate in a society that’s making us unwell. After a long, hard day, working at a pointless job, it is only natural to lose ourselves in a film or book, the more escapist the better. We are now consuming vast amounts of story and we are going for the hard stuff: science fiction and fantasy. But the genre doesn’t matter so much as who is writing them. I couldn’t help but wonder… if there is a correlation between the amount of stories controlled by rich, white men and the proportion of them sitting in rooms legislating on women’s reproductive health…? And so on.

Now we know the hold that stories have on us, and the social power they have, it becomes less easy to ignore storytelling as a site of power struggle and less easy to sit back and carry on in the role of passive story consumer. We need to strike back by telling stories of our own.

As Jonathan Gottschall surmises, “Maybe we can make nutritious choices and avoid gorging on story… Read fiction and watch it. It will make you more empathic and better able to navigate life’s dilemmas… Remember that we are, by nature, suckers for story. When emotionally absorbed in character and plot, we are easy to mold and manipulate… Revel in the power of stories to change the world… but guard against it too… Allow yourself to daydream. Daydreams are our own little stories: they help us learn from the past and plan for the future… Rejoice in the fantastic improbability of the twisting evolutionary path that made us creatures of story” (The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, pp.198-199).

Now you know how storytelling is integral to being a human being, try incorporating more of it into whatever you do. Whether it is art and performance, filmmaking or documentaries, short stories and novels, therapy and wellbeing, connection, community and campaigning – as well as in our families and relationships.

Use the Life Writing app to spark your storytelling ideas and remember that you do have stories worth sharing.

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