Daily Archives: August 7, 2012

How stories make us human

It’s not easy to infect the brain of another person with an idea; it can be accomplished only by hitting the small exposed hole in the system. For the brain, that hole is story-shaped.—David Eagleman

Eagleman’s lines appear in his review of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, by Jonathan Gottschall, in this week’s New York Times Book Review. Narratives that we heed are inherently and intensely moralistic—as a group-level adaptation, they encourage pro-social behavior and are “as important as genes,” Eagleman says. “Gottschall points out that for a story to work, it has to possess a particular morality. To capture and influence, it can’t be plagued with moral repugnance . . . If the narrative doesn’t contain the suitable kind of virtue, brains don’t absorb it.

“The story torpedo misses the exposed brain vent. (There are exceptions, Gottschall allows, but they only prove the rule.)”

 Eagleman writes:

There are several surprises about stories. The first is that we spend a great deal of time in fictional worlds, whether in daydreams, novels, confabulations or life narratives. When all is tallied up, the decades we spend in the realm of fantasy outstrip the time we spend in the real world. As Gottschall puts it, “Neverland is our evolutionary niche, our special habitat.”


A second surprise: The dominant themes of story aren’t what we might assume them to be. Consider the plotlines found in children’s playtime, daydreams and novels. The narratives can’t be explained away as escapism to a more blissful reality. If that were their purpose, they would contain more pleasure. Instead, they’re horrorscapes. They bubble with conflict and struggle. The plots are missing all the real-life boring bits, and what remains is an unrealistically dense collection of trouble. Trouble, Gottschall argues, is the universal grammar of stories.


The same applies to our nighttime hallucinations. If you’ve ever wanted your dreams to come true, let’s hope you don’t mean your literal nocturnal dreams. These overflow with discord and violence. When researchers pick apart the hours of dream content, it turns out dreamland is all about fight or flight.

Read the whole review here.


Filed under evolutionary psychology, narrative, NOTED