Storytelling Species

by Bonnie Swift


Some nights when I’m putting my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter to bed, she asks me to tell her the 'owl story'. It’s a very short story about a time when I was driving late at night and accidentally bumped into a snowy owl with my car. The owl had been standing the the middle of the road, and jumped up in the air as I sped around a corner. I was able to slow down before it hit my windshield, so it had been a relatively light bump. When I stopped my car to get out and look for the giant white bird, it was gone. I tell my daughter that the owl probably flew back into the forest to be with its friends. My daughter loves the 'owl story' and asks for it again and again.


One night when she asked for this story, I tried an experiment, and subtracted much of its usual narrative structure. I talked about driving in a more general sense, about the concept of a speed limit, and about how cars that are going too fast will sometimes hit animals. I told her about the habits of nocturnal species like owls, and about snowy owl migration patterns. As I had predicted, she quickly lost interest, and eventually interrupted me. She wanted the story, not a list of facts.


Why does my toddler already prefer stories to non-stories? Some would say that, because she’s human, this preference is built into her DNA. Have humans evolved as a storytelling species? If so, why? Why would storytelling have helped us survive and reproduce in our ancestral environment?


Not everybody believes that humans have evolved as storytellers, but there’s a growing body of scholarship to support this view. Literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall surveys this research in his engaging, recent book The Storytelling Animal. And Michael Gazzaniga, a cognitive neuroscientist at UC Santa Barbara, also touches on the role of the arts (including storytelling) in human evolution in his book Human. Both have some compelling ideas about the possible biological role that storytelling might have played in human evolution.


Let’s start with the explanations proposing that storytelling gave our ancestors a practical advantage. Then, we’ll work our way towards theories of how storytelling improved their minds. Gazzaniga suggests that, deep in human history, storytelling provided a survival advantage by facilitating the exchange of crucial information and skills. Stories, in this view, served as conduits for the transmission of knowledge such as how to find food, shelter, and water, and how to avoid enemies and predators. A skeptic, however, might say that this kind of information could just as easily be passed along in non-narrative form, so there would be no need for humans to evolve as storytellers.


A slightly stronger argument, I think, is that storytelling provided a survival advantage by increasing group cohesiveness. Both Gotschall and Gazzaniga point out that oral storytelling necessarily brings humans together, in both the literal and figurative sense. Storytelling in groups facilitates a shared, single focus of attention, and such physical and mental proximity would have been likely to strengthen social bonds. Stories can also be used to teach codes of conduct, and might have helped our ancestors rally around a common set of values. For reasons that are easily imagined -- fewer intra-group conflicts, better coordination in hunting, child rearing, etc. -- a more cohesive group would have had a survival advantage over its less cohesive neighbors. While the story-less would die out, the storytellers would live to tell another tale.


So we have two explanations so far: stories conveyed information; stories helped us bond. But maybe they did something totally different. Maybe stories helped us to, ahem, better reproduce.


Gottschall and Gazzaniga (drawing on the work of Geoffrey Miller) conjecture that storytelling served as a ‘fitness indicator’ to attract potential mates, much like a peacock tail, which provided our early ancestors with an opportunity to display their skill, intelligence, and creativity. A good storyteller might have risen above his or her mate-seeking competitors in the group. And if a talented storyteller was better at attracting good mates, then that storyteller probably had more offspring, and then there would be more little storytellers running around…

Many theorists agree that storytelling probably helped in all those ways. Some argue, though, that storytelling’s most important contribution happened inside our heads. Gazzaniga argues that storytelling, and aesthetically-driven behavior more generally, served to increased neuro-cognitive organization in early humans. (Here Gazzaniga pulls from the work of John Tooby and Leda Cosmides.) In the words of another prominent scholar who writes about literature and evolution, Brian Boyd, 'A work of art acts like a playground for the mind.' Stories, like playgrounds, are fun to engage with, but as any storyteller will tell you, the act of creating a story demands a certain amount of mental exertion. While playgrounds provide us with opportunities to strengthen our muscles, storytelling adds wrinkles to our brains.    


But storytelling provides more than just a mental playground. Which brings me to the most compelling theory about possible evolutionary advantages provided by storytelling: Keith Oatley’s 'flight simulator theory'. This theory comes up in Gottschall’s book, and goes like this: stories provide a low stakes environment for humans to practice navigating risky scenarios, especially emotional scenarios, just like a flight simulator provides a safe space for a new pilot to practice the dangerous task of learning to flying a plane.

Gottschall puts it succinctly: ‘Fiction [storytelling] is a powerful and ancient virtual reality technology that simulates the big dilemmas of human life.’


The flight simulator theory is at least in part based on recent studies of the human brain. In an oft-cited 2012 opinion piece in New York Times, The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction, Annie Murphy Paul writes that in fMRI scans, stories light up parts of our brain that that process language (Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas), but also areas of the brain that have little to do with language, like areas the process movement and emotion. When we listen to a scary or sexy story, our brains activate our bodily representations of what those stories feel like. And this provides a unique learning environment, in which we cognitively benefit from a rich experience, without having to take the risks associated with it.


And, Gazzaniga writes, the more stories we hear, the more experiences we become familiar with. So when we do run across a tricky situation, we have a wealth of background information to help us deal with it.


But a flight simulator is doing more than providing a pilot with background information. A simulator allows a new pilot to rehearse a set of skills, which leads to enhanced performance, regardless whether the training is explicitly remembered. Stories work in a similar way, and over time this process fundamentally reconfigures our minds. Boyd writes, 'Exposure to a single story told once will not transform a mind substantially, but many repetitions, or many different stories, can improve our capacities for social cognition and scenario construction so valuable to us in the non-story world.'


Or, echoes Gottschall, 'The constant firing of our neurons in response to fictional stimuli strengthens and refines the neural pathways that lead to skillful navigation of life’s problems.'


The theories are pretty convincing that storytelling provided early humans with an evolutionary advantage, but some biologists nevertheless hold that storytelling played no functional role in our evolution. Stories, they say, are just like drugs, and humans use them to escape the boredom and brutality of real life. It’s not biologically useful; it’s just for kicks. These thinkers argue that the brain may not have evolved in order to to be good at storytelling, but that there are glitches in the brain’s structure that make it vulnerable to storytelling. (Just as fingers did not evolve in order to type on a keyboard or play the piano, but they happen to be very useful for those purposes now.) My toddler’s predilection for narrative, in this view, is just the result of a series of lucky accidents in human evolution.


After doing the research for this post, I am prone to think that our species-wide penchant for storytelling is indeed an adaptation, and not just a quirky by-product of evolution. And if the literature had failed to convince me, my daughter’s seemingly innate appetite for stories would have.


But these are all still open questions. Evidence for both arguments is still in coming in, and we are a long way from having ‘proof’ for one theory or another. In the meantime, toddlers all over the world are demanding stories with good strong narrative structures when we put them to bed.


Image from Wikimedia

Article written by: Bonnie Swift on 6/27/2014