“Story is for a human as water is for a fish – all encompassing and not quite palpable.”
Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human
Storytelling, it would seem, is bred in our bones. As humans, we’re compelled to make sense of the world and to capture our understanding of it, however fleeting, in the net of narrative. So says the article, “The Science Behind Our Love of Storytelling.”
According to researchers, we are the only species to pursue this passion. From whence does it spring? How and why has evolution gifted us with this strange, unique desire? Many essayists, including Umberto Ecco, have attempted to explain the human desire to create order and share connection, through storytelling. Now biologists and neuroscientists are weighing in with their take on the cerebral source of our narrative drive – and that’s a story in itself.
According to brain researchers, the human cerebral system is hardwired for narrative meaning-making. Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, who has been studying this phenomenon for four decades, has dubbed it “the interpreter,” and describes it as a mechanism that “develops a story from our actions and gives us the impression” that we have a “unified mind,” in Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience.
He bases this view on hard science: When people with severe epilepsy underwent surgery to separate the two hemispheres of their brains in order to relieve their symptoms, researchers found that their brains continued to construct stories around disparate images they were presented with. This is what our brain does constantly. As Gazzaniga writes, “It takes the impulses from its different parts and from its surroundings and synthesizes them in a story that makes sense. We humans are always looking for a pattern, for cause and effect, for the meaning of things.”
Another driver behind our compulsion for storytelling is what professor Lisa Zunshine calls “the theory of mind.” From an early age, she speculates, we assume that others’ minds work the same way as ours do and so we gather clues and then assemble them so we’ll know what the people around us are thinking about and striving for. We read fiction, asserts Zunshine, because it allows us to exercise our “theory of mind” in an intense and satisfying way. Intriguing!
But are we truly alone as a species in our drive to tell stories? Some scientists have offered compelling evidence that apes, chimps, and even dogs have the ability to “construct” alternate realities that are the stuff of narrative. Strangely comforting, isn’t it, to know we’re not the only story spinners in the world. Write on!