It wasn’t until recently did I start thinking about a question I should have asked myself years ago: Why tell stories?
I’ve been so preoccupied in trying to make a good story I didn’t really stop to think why. Sure you can say, “Well, Vince, cause it’s fun.” And you’d be right! But, fun isn’t enough for me. I want to know why it’s fun. What makes it fun in our minds? Why are our brains lighting up when we watch a movie, read a book, listen to music, or stare at a painting for too long?
Here, I hope to put down my thoughts to this question and give you guys some fun and cool videos and works I found online that touch on the subject. If you don’t like reading scientific publications, don’t worry; I’ve tried to cram my favorite finds into this (hopefully) bite-sized article.
Let’s jump in.
Stories go way back before written history, when it is believed our hunting and gathering ancestors told oral stories around campfires. Evidence of storytelling goes as far back as 39,000BCE in Spain, where hand stencils and symbols have been found in cave dwellings.
In 1993, archeologists in Greece discovered the Dispilio Tablet. Dating back to 5260BCE, the inscriptions are the oldest ever discovered. Though we do not know what is written on the tablet (publication of the discovery still pending), it is probable that stories would’ve made their way into written form at this time.
The oldest known written story goes to the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh dating back to roughly 2,600BCE. The story follows a king who goes out in search for of immortality. Not too shabby to be humanity’s first quest, eh?
Over the next few centuries, stories continue to evolve and grow. With society developing at a faster and faster rate, more mediums get discovered. Theater, music, poetry, and art become mediums of narrative that are shared with everyone.
It’s not until about 800BCE that the Greek myths of Hercules and the gods are written down. This is also around the time when we have the first written evidence that people started thinking about why we tell stories.
Between the 1st and the 13th century, we see a dramatic shift of stories in Europe. Out goes the old Roman myths and in comes Christianity. Scandinavian myths remain strong, spreading through much of Northern Europe.
When the printing press was introduced in Europe in the 15th century, the world was teeming with stories and myths. The press only fanned the flames and made these works more accessible.
In the Enlightenment era, we slowly see an increased diversity in our stories. Once bound strictly to the Christian faith, storytellers begin to delve into more non-religious tales.
Coming into the 20th century, cinema begins to win the hearts of people. By 1980, videogames jump on the bandwagon with Pac Man, one of the earliest and most popular game protagonists.
The rest is history.
What Is A Story?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a story is:
and events told for entertainment.
That sounds about right. I like how they use the word “account.” It leaves the definition open to all mediums. Although, I personally wouldn’t use the term “entertainment” in the end. I wouldn’t read a news story for entertainment value, especially if it’s about something tragic. But, hey, these guys have been defining words since 1857, so who am I to say they’re wrong?
But do all stories follow this definition regardless of cultural, social, and temporal differences? According to Joseph Campbell, they do. In his theory of The Hero's Journey, Campbell states that stories follow one path:
Science of Story
I could jump straight into the Greek era of Plato and Socrates, but their theories are based more on philosophical meanderings than actual studies. There wasn’t much when it came to controlled experimentation. And forget about brain scans. Besides, they were too focused on telling stories of their own, and how to craft even better ones! Ah, my college days :)
Actual scientific experimentation came about in the 20th century. With controlled studies and MRIs, we finally see a good picture of what stories are doing to us.
In 1944, two scientists created the Heider-Simmel experiment. In lieu of explaining what the experiment is, let’s just do it. Please watch the following video:
This test shows that human beings have an innate predisposition to storytelling. We can project stories onto inanimate objects!
What does this prove? That storytelling is essential to our existence. Perhaps we are genetically inclined to tell stories? Now that’s a bold statement. In fact, whether the need to tell stories is genetic or socially learned is still heavily debated within scientific circles.
Let’s face it, the science of storytelling is still in its infancy, and some of the most notable studies are only showing up now. But let’s not get bogged down by the sad reality and move on.
So we know that humans are naturally inclined to storytelling, yet the question remains - why? Here are some theories:
Evolutionarily, this is a good thing. Two heads are better than one, after all. And you can really get to building an awesome civilisation when everyone is on the same page (pun intended).
Going back to all the ancient civilisations that predate globalisation. Generally, one set of stories prevailed in each community. Whether it’s Greek Mythology, or Christianity, these stories were often believed by only one notable civilisation. When there was a difference in stories, we see nations split or even go to war!
It’s harder to see nowadays, as we have become more intermingled than ever before, but stories as a social glue is still quite prevalent. Think of all those World of Warcraft fans, or how about sports? Funerals have been carried out in WoW's world of Azeroth to mourn players who decide to stop playing the game! People still rally together through the stories and heroics of their favorite sports teams.
Stories have, and continue to, be used as a rallying cry for social change and togetherness.
What the images are supposed to teach us is still up for debate. Some say the animals represent their spiritual beliefs, while others believe that they may form a basic star chart. Perhaps it was a hunting journal, showing to-be hunters what they can expect to hunt next season.
Skip a few thousand years down the line and stories really pick up on this theory. Stories like Gilgamesh can be seen as a cautionary tale, telling the reader: “Hey, don’t look for immortality, cause there is none!”
But why transfer information in story? Why not just write the information and be done with it? Isn’t it easier to pass on information in its basic form, rather than spin them into elaborate adventures or artistic frescoes?
Yes, however, thanks to science, we now know that transmitting information through story has some amazing advantages for the listener.
For one, it lasts longer in the mind. Recent studies by Paul J. Zak from Harvard have shown that people who are taught courses through storytelling techniques often have a clearer idea of the topic and can recall them much faster weeks later. The results are so astounding that Zak said it “blows the standard Powerpoint presentation to bits.”
What he discovered is that stories affect the brain’s synthesis of oxytocin levels. They give the audience a natural high, probably due to the evolution of the neural pathways as nature finds telling stories as the best way to keep them stored in the mind.
Other studies by Keith Oatley from the University of Toronto seem to prove this theory. Oatley mentions how the brain seems to be hard-wired to efficiently digest stories.
Which way do you find easier to learn the year Columbus sailed for the Americas?
- 1492 – Columbus sails to America.
- Fourteen-ninty-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
Most students would pick the second one. The information, put into poetic limerick, is more memorable due to its story-oriented aspect.
Another way it helps with transferring knowledge is that it’s easier to comprehend more complex knowledge through storytelling in a shorter amount of time.
Jill Eck from the University of Wisconsin-Stout made a study where she experimented this teaching method in scenarios where students needed to learn a lot of information in a short amount of time. The results correlated to storytelling being the best method of transmitting information that “sticks.”
This is so important in our modern world as more and more courses get shorter and shorter to accommodate the fast-paced lifestyles we’ve all come to live in. Companies are pushing for more story-driven teachings in order to get new employees up to speed and competent in the quickest way possible.
It’s easy to understand this when you consider how knowledge is packed into a story. With stories, we see the cause and effect chain of actions and events. In a way, we get to “experience” the results of certain actions without having to test them out in the real world.
This simulation, similar to play fighting in animals, gives us knowledge that is backed up with implementation. It gives weight to the information, as you don’t need to test it to see what the outcome will be. Want to know what will happen if a ship hits an iceberg? Go watch Titanic. You don’t have to do it yourself.
Stories don’t only show you what happens, but also reveal to you why they happen.
This is probably why people are more inclined to watch stories with tragic and horrifying twists and turns. The brain is duped into wanting to see the outcome so that you know what to do if similar events befall you in real life. The same thing happens with post-apocalyptic genres. Want to know how to survive a zombie apocalypse? The Walking Dead is a dead ringer.
According to Jonathan Gottschall from Washington & Jefferson College, humans are judgmental and truth seeking by nature. The reason behind this is that we are always trying to define who we are and what world we live in. In order to do that we need to categorise: good vs. bad, big vs. small etc.
Stories can help us decide who we want to be. When you watch The Lord of the Rings, who do you associate yourself with? Are you an Aragorn, or a Frodo? If you said Sauron, that might be a little concerning.
The fact of the matter is we, as human beings, side with the people we relate to the most. We learn from their mistakes, parade their courage as our own, and push to be aspects of them in the real world.
According to Zak, studies have proven that people who watch action films like James Bond or 300 tend to walk away with a braver and more dominant mentality. We adore heroes who struggle to beat the odds, and admonish villains who want complete power.
Studies by Paul Bloom from Yale University on 2-year-old children has shown us that they can already place judgment on who is good and who is bad in a story. When offered toys of those characters, they’d reward the hero and punish the villain.
The last study I'd like to mention is the Simon Baron-Cohen experiment. This was a study to see how stories can affect how we read people’s faces. Take a look at the picture below and pick which expression you think the person is showing:
Studies have shown that people who read more are statistically more inclined to pick the right emotion for the face. Which one did you pick?
All in all, these experiments have shown us how we use what we learn in stories to paint our perception of the real world around us. This is both a good and bad thing. It’s good because we can easily define the world around us, but bad as it can be used by people to paint the world for their own ends – Hitler’s Mein Kampf comes to mind. It seems the pen is mightier than the sword.
We End Here… For Now.
There are dozens of other theories on why we tell stories, but these were the ones that stuck out for me and are probably the most popular.
Which one do I believe in? For now, all of them! (Is that a cop out?). We have found evidence that all of them can be valid in our lives, and they all work on the mind in similar ways. In fact, Identity seems to borrow heavily from the Social Glue and Knowledge theories, needing a bit of both to even exist.
I believe that we tell stories because it’s in our evolution. Genetic predisposition and social learning has built up this awesome brain that activates when we hear stories because it is the most beneficial thing to do for the survival of our species. We get high on stories so that we can learn more efficiently, bond more amicably, and understand who we are.
Whether we are young or old, we can all get together around a table or campfire and tell wondrous tales of adventure as a way to become better people ready to build a better world.
Some Cool References
There is a lot to learn, and in the coming years, new ideas and theories will be discovered that will change what we think of stories and why they are important to us. I have barely scratched the surface on this subject and will continue to dig deeper in search for the truth.
For now, here are some awesome links to works I’ve used to put this article together and some extra stuff that will kickstart your exploration into this expanding field.
Joseph Campbell - Hero With a Thousand Faces - An amazing read. He brings up some great story ideas and philosophies like Jung's collective consciousness into the mix.
Why We Tell Stories - An great program about storytelling with some of the world's finest minds at the 2012 World Science Fair. I used this as a springboard into the subject and my research. Well worth a watch.
Paul J. Zak - Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling.
Elizabeth F. Churchill - An introduction to the Social Glue theory.
Leo Widrich - The Science of Storytelling.
Keith Oatley - Empathy Upgrade.
Jerome Bruner - Making Stories: Law, Literature, and Life.