Why do we tell stories?

To further understand how we must change the way we produce and present our narratives for digital distribution (I’ve written a first article about this subject here), I wanted to learn why we, as humans, need stories and storytelling. To address this subject I was fortunate enough to find Brian Boyd’s book “On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction”.

It is unquestionable that our species needs to tell and listen to stories, be it fiction or real stories. We have been doing it since the beginning of times. Some argue that our storytelling needs are commanded by the social ambient we live in. Mr. Boyd goes to great length on his book to show that stories and humans have more to do with our species cognition and evolution, than to the social ambients we live in.

In no way do I intend for this simple, small article, to substitute reading Mr. Boyd’s book. Actually, I urge everyone who has a minimal interest on storytelling to do so.

So, why do we need to tell and listen to stories?

First of all, we have to acknowledge the obvious principle that humans are a social species. This means that we must live within a society to survive and evolute. Such is the case of other species like wolfs, bees, flamingos, etc.

Living in organized societies does post a problem for it’s habitants; evolution is ‘jealous’ by nature (ah, easy play of words, sorry!!) since our genes must fight to survive and pass on to future generations. On the other hand, living in societies means that we must help others in order to survive ourselves.

One of the ultimate goals for members of a society is to aquire important information, allowing for better integration within the group (for example, knowing who’s the alpha of the group) and also status, to move upwards on the power steps of the community (augmenting one’s hypothesis for both survival and our genes perpetuation).

Another important survival fact, this time about mammals in general, is that as an intelligent species, one that also depends a great deal on exploring, many mammals need the ability to act when presented with new scenarios. Most animals achieve the ability to deal with such problems through play, as so do we humans. But our species is even more complex and play alone doesn’t fulfill the needs. This is one of the answers for stories. Mr. Boyd explains:

“Old and new stories and characters open up and populate possibility space. All these fictions make us the one species not restricted to the here and now, even if that must be where we act and feel and imagine.” Mr. Boyd continues: “(…) we have evolved to engage in art and storytelling because of the survival advantages they offer our species.”

This need for art and storytelling as a survival tool made human’s “prefrontal cortex – the part of the human brain that has expanded most dramatically over the last three million years, and the part that makes abstract reasoning possible – suppressing immediate natural responses for the sake of long-term strategic”.

As we’ve seen so far, humans evolved in order to be able to create both art (fiction) and storytelling as a form of survival. We’ve also seen that, within a society, humans long for information and status has another important factor for both survival and perpetuation of one’s genes. Let’s focus deeper on these two points, again with the invaluable help of Mr. Boyd’s book.

The need for information is almost a non-brainer, once we acknowledge human’s need to live within a society. Nevertheless, more in depth information (ah, ah) is helpful to understand human’s vital need for stories. Again, Mr. Boyd is here to help us: “Narrative can offer us either particular social information to guide immediate decisions or general principles we can apply in the future”. Furthermore, “Minds generate future: they guide action by trying to predict what will follow”, “We therefore listen eagerly to those with strategic information they think we will value.”

Within a society, the higher we are on the power stair (status) the better chances we have to survive and for our genes to perpetuate. Since humans have the need for information as a tool of survival, those who posses that information and share it, using storytelling, will be on a better position to achieve status within the group. As Mr. Boyd tells us: “Art entices us to engage our attention and activate our minds in ways that we find most pleasing, and allows the most gifted individuals to earn status by their power to command the attention of others”.

To achieve that status, the storyteller must solve some problems: “Character and plot are from one angle problems that all storytellers must solve to hold an audience, (…)”, “(…) audiences always ready to redirect their minds to their own concerns should an author’s grip on their attention weaken.”

In the end, Mr. Boyd tells us: “(…) the chief functions of art and story lie in improving human cognition, cooperation and creativity.”

Brian Boyd’s “On the Origin of Stories” looks mostly into fiction storytelling, going to great length to study Homer’s “The Odyssey” and Dr. Seuss “Horton Hears a Who!”. Nevertheless, it is my understanding that most of what is told on his book applies to non-fiction. Even more so when thinking on long format modern narratives, like Jack Hart describes on his amazing new book “Storycraft” (More about this masterpiece on a article to be written in the near future! I promise.)

But how does all of this relates to narratives for digital distribution? Let’s take a final look at Mr. Boyd’s book. As stated above, Brian Boyd analyzes Homer’s “The Odyssey” as a great example of storytelling (and it is!). He tells us that Homer used the best available technology to tell his audience the story of Ulysses, through the theater, with a poet/singer delivering it to the audience.

Being such a powerful narrative, it is no surprise that “The Odyssey” was printed as a book, once again using the best available technology for broadcasting Homer’s classic: Gutenberg’s invention of movable type and the mass printing of books.

So, if we understand, beyond doubt, the need humans have to both deliver and consume stories, why should we not rethink how to deliver them, the best way we can, using the latest technology? “The Odyssey” started as a epic poem for oral distribution and evolved into a book, for paper distribution. It was also adapted to the TV screen, for comics books, etc.

I leave you with one last quote from Brian Boyd’s book to help this line of thinking: “In each new work they (the storytellers) will seek to raise the benefit – the attention – earning power of their compositional efforts and lower their composition costs, through recombining existing solutions in new ways, while also raising the benefits and lowering their audience’s costs in time and effort.”


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