World Science Festival: Why We Tell Stories

Watch the video below. What do you see?

If you are like most people (117 out of 120 in the original study), these shapes tell a story. Humans are primed to see a narrative, even when the characters involved are shapes. We experience pleasure “even watching this really rudimentary fiction,” said Dr. Jonathan Gottschall at a World Science Festival event. Dr. Gottschall’s work explores the connections between science and the humanities.

Dr. Gottschall was joined at the event, “Why We Tell Stories: The Science of Narrative,” by novelists Jeffrey Eugenides and Joyce Carol Oates, psychologists Keith Oatley and Paul Bloom, and moderator Jay Allison.

Humans are primed to tell and enjoy stories, but why?

“There’s no mystery why people would want facts about the real world,” said Dr. Bloom. But “why would we want facts about people who we full well know don’t exist?…That’s just an extraordinary puzzle.”

There are several possible evolutionary answers to that question. One, as Dr. Gottschall explained, is that people in story-telling cultures thrived. As Ms. Oates said, “Storytelling is very much linked to religious origins and to whether there’s a life after death. I think [these questions are] of intense interest to all of us, but we can’t confront them head on as logical questions.” A shared mythos can unite a society.

Another view, described by Dr. Bloom, is that our brains are hardwired for story. This “could have evolved out of capacities that preexisted for other reasons,” and then had communal and individual benefits.

Research is beginning to tell us that reading stories has benefits—something this recovering English major was glad to hear. Dr. Oatley has found two kinds of effects. One, he said, is the “more stories—fiction—you read, the better you are at understanding people.”

This discovery came from a study in which Dr. Oatley measured the amount of fiction and non-fiction the participants read, and then showed them 36 pictures of people’s eyes. Subjects had to select the emotion—desire, fear, frustration, etc.—the eyes conveyed. Reading more fiction improved performance on the test.

The second benefit involves the quality of a story. Dr. Oatley’s lab conducted another study in which people read either a Chekhov story or a non-Chekhov version of the story matched for length, difficulty, and plot. Readers found the stories equally interesting, but those who read the original Chekhov experienced a modest, short-term change in personality. Dr. Oatley hypothesizes that long-term exposure to “stories that people categorize as art” could lead to longer-term changes.

Exposure to story can also affect the larger society. As Ms. Oates reminded the audience, “storytelling can be very beautiful and very elegant . . . but there are very negative kinds of storytelling,” citing Mein Kamf. At the same time, said Dr. Bloom, Uncle Tom’s Cabin had a very positive societal effect.

“We’re highly suggestible,” said Dr. Gottschall. While people laughed at Vice President Biden for saying that the television show Will and Grace caused huge changes in societal views of homosexuality, “that’s actual one of the dominant theories in the social sciences.”

Studies have backed this theory. As Dr. Bloom explained, experiments done in India and parts of Africa have tracked the opinions of those who have access to cable television shows compared to those who don’t. “The ones who do get cable TV have far more progressive attitudes towards women, far more liberal attitudes, because the TV they get is soap operas from the big city,” where these attitudes are more common and reflected in the entertainment, said Dr. Bloom.

Exposure to stories can also impact children—but perhaps not in the ways you would think. “People like, under some circumstances, feelings of being afraid and feeling sad,” said Dr. Bloom. Children are no different. Dr. Bloom’s lab has shown four and five year olds films of other children reacting to movies. When asked which of the movies they would want to see, the four and five year olds preferred the happy films, but picked scary movies over the boring ones.

“Parents automatically assume that children like stories with happy endings, said Dr. Bloom, citing The Little Engine That Could. “But what about The Little Engine That Tried and Failed? It might be that children would find it perversely satisfying.”

And endings—good or bad—serve a purpose. “It’s persuasive that stories exist to impose a meaning in a meaningless world, or a world we could fear is meaningless,” said Mr. Eugenides.

Dr. Oatley agreed. “Stories could indeed be a way of exploring the world without these terrible things that you are reading about actually happening to you…If we don’t understand the world, then it’s less likely that we’re going to survive.”

Watch the entire event below to see a performance by the Upright Citizens Brigade (start at 00:04:00) and to find out what Jeffrey Eugenides has to say about Joyce Carol Oates’ interest in playing an Emily Dickinson video game (starting at 1:31:00):

–Johanna Goldberg

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