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Why Our Brains Tell Stories

Updated: Jan 14, 2022

Joan Didion, one of my writing heroes, died in December, and I recently reread her essay Why I Write, in which she sums up an answer in her classic, compact style: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see, and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” Since I often write about science and work with clients who also have this focus, I’ve been reading lately about the science behind Didion’s statement, essentially why our brains are hardwired to tell stories.

Storytelling is a central strategy for survival.

Most of us can now agree that the physical brain and the mind are one, which is why it’s interesting to think about storytelling as a built-in part of the mechanisms of our brain structures. This hardwiring inevitably makes us ask: Why have our brains evolved this way, and what purpose do stories play in our lives and culture?

I recently read two books on storytelling, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall and an academic book called Literature and the Brain by Norman Holland, a professor at the University of Florida. Holland specializes in the psychology of the arts. Both books offered answers based on evolutionary psychology and neuroscience that can be summed up pretty simply: storytelling is a central strategy for survival.

Scientists today better understand the hardwiring of storytelling, thanks to modern advances in neurology that have let them observe physical brain systems. Some literary theorists now use neuroscience and brain imaging to study aspects of stories like character, meaning, and the experience of fiction, in the same way, that neuroscientists investigate psychoanalytic concepts like libido and repression. For example, when we become absorbed in a fictional story, we draw on brain systems that process storytelling language, the “what” and “where” circuitry, which use pathways different from the processing of everyday speech.

Of course, this subject offers enough material for several books, but for the sake of understanding the impact and importance of storytelling in shaping our lives, our companies, and our culture, here are a few takeaways.

Being Transported is an Innate Part of Who We Are

We all know the experience of a great story that takes us out of ourselves so that we are genuinely absorbed in it. Our brains have evolved for this experience to happen. As early humans learned to survive and avoid getting eaten by wild beasts, our brains developed a sense of knowing something was “out there,” separate from ourselves. Magnocellular cells in our brains specialize in changes in light and help us separate “what” from “where” so we can see the world in three dimensions. This “what” circuitry helps us identify objects outside us, such as a lion on the prowl, or as it turns out, reading Jane Austin. Neuroscientists think that reading or hearing a story uses the same system and allows us to project our expectations or be transported into a story, as if it were “out there.” “When we read, our eyes scanning the page of a book further guarantees that we will experience the page as ‘out there’ in the world,” Norman Holland writes in Literature and the Brain. “Evolution has so constructed our brains that what we take to be a book or play or a movie is not just our sense organs’ output.” It turned out that this ability to “transport” us, or imagine ourselves into a narrative, is essential to our survival. Not only so that we don’t get eaten, but also because it helps us connect socially with one another through storytelling.

Stories Foster Social Cooperation

This innate focusing of our attention, or Didion’s “what I see,” turns out to be critical for our social survival. Some thinkers argue that the skill of telling stories was an asset that offered advantages in sexual selection. A study published in the journal Nature Communications found that storytelling fosters cooperation and teaches social norms, which improves the storytellers’ chances of being chosen as social partners, winning community support, and even having healthy offspring. “Maybe stories, and other art forms, aren’t just obsessed with sex: Maybe they are ways of getting sex, by making gaudy, peacock-like displays of our skill, intelligence, and creativity—the quality of our minds,” Gottschall speculates in The Storytelling Animal. He argues that stories are a social glue that bring people together around shared values that have helped them function better as individuals and as groups.

This coming together happens because when a person tells a story, it releases oxytocin in the brain associated with empathy, a vital element in building, deepening, and maintaining relationships. A study by the psychologists Keith Oatley, Raymond Mar, and their colleagues found that fiction readers have better social skills, as measured by social and empathetic ability tests. “The constant firing of neurons in response to fictional stimuli strengthens and refines the neural pathways that lead to skillful navigation of life’s problems,” Gottschall writes.

Scientists have also found that when a person tells or listens to a story, the brain releases chemicals like cortisol and dopamine. This helps the storyteller's point stick, because cortisol assists with formulating memories.

Stories Help Us Create Order

Didion wrote that she writes to find out what she’s thinking. Ultimately, this is how our brain makes sense of the world. In The Storytelling Animal, Gottschall describes an experiment in which a scientist separated the two cerebral lobes of a patient with epilepsy, by severing his corpus callosum, the band of nerves that directs communication between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. The patient was cured of epilepsy, but the lobes could no longer communicate, or make order from the flow of information into his brain. Later, Michael Gazzaniga, a neuroscientist who studies the hemispheres of the brain, found that the left hemisphere is responsible for making sense of information. Gottschall concludes: “The job of this set of neural circuits is to detect order and meaning in that flow and to organize it into a coherent account of a person’s experience—into a story.”

What’s the purpose of your story? How do want to tell it? Get in touch.

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