Why does storytelling still matter?
Recently I’ve been reading a book called “The Storytelling Animal”, which describes why stories are so fundamental to the human character. One theory suggested as to why fiction developed – and why we’ve retained it – is that it provides us with psychological practice around feeling certain emotions, like a form of “play” for the brain. The rationale behind this is that hearing or reading stories about courage, romance, struggle, etc., is that it creates neural connections that allow us to respond with the appropriate emotions when the time comes in our own lives.
The book even outlines two types of (imaginary) human tribes from ancient prehistory – the “Practicals” (who are as they sound) and the “Storytellers”. These two groups have a similar way of life, with the exception that, at the end of each day, the Practicals quietly rest, as they need to reserve their strength for the following day. By contrast, the Storytellers hang around the campfire together, swapping jokes and tall tales.
On the face of it, the Practicals sound like the obvious group to survive, presumably being more “productive”. And yet it is the Storytellers who have survived to the present day. Modern humans tell and listen to stories and jokes from the time we wake up until we sleep – and even then, we dream much of the time.
So, what evolutionary purpose is there to storytelling? My initial thought was that perhaps, once we had developed language, the usefulness of storytelling would have come about as a response to needing to “think outside the box”. If we assume that evolution is completely ruthless, and that animals (including humans) retain only those traits which assist with survival, then there must have been a trigger that ensured storytelling was actually useful.
And what was a bigger shock to very early humans than the Ice Ages? In my fevered imagination, I had thought that it was potentially possible in some places that the climate would change rapidly, within the space of a few years. If this was true, then it may well affect all of the human food sources existing in a given location. Plants and animals would try to adapt to the changes, but many would not make it…and this would mean that the local “food maps” people carried in their heads would rapidly go out of date.
Over time, that patch of apple trees down by the lake would no longer be there if the lake itself dried up. The herd of antelopes that used to graze by the lake each autumn on their annual migration may well stop coming if there was no longer much grass there. Conversely, there may be fewer of them as food sources dwindled across a broad area, and the few the humans could catch had little meat on them.
In this situation, being able to observe, communicate and to react flexibly and intelligently to those changes would be an advantage over any tribes of human that were determined to do things the way they had always been done. What if storytelling was part of what developed new ideas, or gave people the courage to migrate well beyond their existing lands?
I think this might be very loosely possible, although after I did a bit of research, the evidence for this was not there. According to Page 260 of this paper (https://www.smu.edu/-/media/Site/Dedman/Departments/Anthropology/MeltzerPDFs/Meltzer-and-Bar-Yosef-2012-YD-Volume.ashx?la=en), during the Younger Dryas period (the most recent Ice Age), the climate did not whiplash from one extreme to the other in a matter of years. Rather, there was local change, but it was variable and non-existent in some locations.
Likewise, Page 32 of another paper (https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/14ef/a36931a3d3ad5dc4812015f4890b1a3e343c.pdf) explains that adapting to changing climatic and environmental conditions was nothing new to humans in North America. It was, in fact, just an ongoing part of life generation after generation – something that those of us in 2018 can easily forget.
Once I actually went looking, it was clear that a great deal of academic study exists about the development of storytelling. A good summary exists here (https://www.anecdote.com/2015/10/the-evolution-of-storytelling/), while a much longer and more detailed explanation is here (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5763351/).
It’s possible not only that storytelling predates language per se, but also that it ties directly to the development of language both physiologically and culturally. We needed language in order to deepen our communication of stories. In doing so, it seems to have led to a virtuous circle where each step forward strengthened our ability to imagine and tell stories. It also established the need for the mental capacities and neural connections to create fiction. This would explain why stories are omnipresent across all human societies. The concept of fiction wasn’t just useful for isolated groups who were under a particular set of survival circumstances.
As the book itself states, this capacity is so integral to the human brain that children start creating stories as part of play from the age of around one year of age. But why do many of us lose the wildly creative side of storytelling that children display? After all, if we don’t use other muscles or capabilities, they fade away over time.
My guess is that adults lose this not only due to socialization, but also due to the effects of the Industrial Revolution. In many cases, this requires us to undertake jobs according to set instructions without much need for creativity and independent thought. And if we do such work for 8 or more hours a day over many years, then it stands to reason our creativity gets rusty from lack of use. Likewise, in the Digital Era, if we fill our brains (and our children’s brains) with audiovisual stories, we’re still not using our creative abilities to their full potential.
I think that both of these trends are concerning. First of all, the world has gigantic challenges, and we need creative and novel solutions to many problems at all levels. Secondly, a collective inability to empathise and to “think outside the box” (both of which are strengthened by fiction) is making many nations prey to populist demagogues. Thirdly, what sort of long-term health impacts (particularly in regards to dementia and schizophrenia, etc.) are going to stem from people not using their creative talents?
On the plus side, however, our storytelling abilities are nascent, not gone. With a little exercise and encouragement, most of us can rediscover them. There is a huge boom in services that help us to do just that – whether it is online learning, book clubs, writer’s and comic festivals, podcasts, or creative writing classes.
More than that, in the last 20 years, especially, there is an increasing economic premium to creativity and innovation. There used to be value in creating a better mousetrap – now, it’s more valuable to use genetics to stop mice breeding in the first place! As more of the Industrial Era world gradually fades into history, we are going to need to create and develop new ways of doing things. Reading and creating all types of stories will help us to do it both individually and collectively.
What do you think?