Why We Tell Stories (And Why It Matters)

Steve Almond Author of William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life

“Human beings,” Steve Almond reminds us (in his new book, William Stoner and the Battle for the Inner Life: Bookmarked) “are a storytelling species. Stories are how we construct ourselves and pluck meaning from the rush of experience.”

Steve Almond’s book on interior world building in a novel

Okay, nothing startling there. But in today’s world of  Fake Stories amid the barrage of algorithm-driven distractions that purport to know what we want, fear, and need even if we don’t, maybe, just maybe, it behooves us to remember that telling stories is what makes us human, and we lose touch with that faculty at our peril.

The Agta people of the Philippines

Anthropologist Andrea Migliano and colleagues have spent time, since 2001, hanging out with one of the last known hunter-gatherer societies. The Agta, indigenous to the Philippines, every month or so pack up their banana-leaf lean-tos and fish, hunt, and forage in the Northern Sierra Madre National Park.  At night, Agta elders sit around the campfire telling stories. Usually moral tales intended to control social behavior. Those stories give us a pretty good view of what humans were like before agriculture and urbanization turned us on the path that led to what we seem bent on becoming now: algorithm-driven zombies too distracted to even listen to stories.

Andrea Migliano anthropologist

What interests me is a survey Migliano put to her hunter-gatherer subjects. When asked what characteristics they valued most in their peers, more than hunting skills, more than medicinal knowledge, they overwhelmingly claimed they valued storytelling. Age, gender, relationship—didn’t matter. They just liked storytelling. When the Agta were asked to play a resource allocation game, in which they could keep bags of rice or donate them to others, people at the camps reputed to have the best storytellers were most generous in giving away rice. Highly thought of storytellers were most likely recipients of the rice. Statistically, good storytellers were more reproductively successful: they had more kids. Concludes Migliano, “There’s an adaptive advantage to storytelling.”

So, why stories? What makes them uniquely us? What value do they give us? What do we risk if we lose our ability to appreciate, let alone tell, good stories?

Northern Sierra Madre National Park Philippines (upper tip of upper island)

Early stories, aka folk tales and fables, were thought to be pragmatic. Fantasy dragons and talking wolves were thinly veiled analogies for real-world threats. Troubles faced in stories simulated real-world conflicts. The simulations allowed our ancestors to anticipate mental and social skills needed to face and, one hoped, overcome actual danger. While highly valued as entertainment—if the Akta’s assessment has broader application—these stories were also survival lessons.

Aside from this survival value, the storytelling represents a way of thinking, “perhaps the most powerful and versatile skill in the human cognitive repertoire,” claims Ferris Jabr, writing in Harper’s, March 2019. The increasingly large brains of our ancestors required a way to synthesize a broad range of experience and distill it into a “single coherent sequence.” Thus, stories were born.

Ferris Jabr author of article in Harpers

A story is an “hallucination” that “temporarily displaces reality.” With their unique ability to tell themselves stories, early humans gained unprecedented freedom from the control of the pressing events they dealt with day in and day out. This ability to dwell in the imagined world of stories “transformed our species from intelligent ape to” in the world of primates to “demigod.”

Stories open “paths of clarity in the chaos of existence, maintain a record of human thought, and grant us the power to shape our perceptions of reality.”

“The Story of Storytelling” article by Ferris Jabr

We live twice through storytelling. The life twice lived is the life that has the chance of revealing meaning in what might otherwise seem a brutish churn of events, we no better than hapless bystanders.

Let’s say in some not too distant future we truly become the algorithm-driven zombies of distraction we seem bent on becoming. So what? What’s at stake? What do we stand to lose?

For one, we’ll lose the battle for control of the robotic devices that already function as our guides. Okay, say we lose that battle. What have we actually lost? I’m guessing Migliano and Fabr would say, what we lose at first is control of the narrative. It’s the stories we tell that assign meaning and value to events. Lose that control and we risk falling prey to false narratives.

That’s only the start. If storytelling at its most basic allows us to simulate events, draw meaning from them, and control social behavior, as the Agta have shown, good storytelling, storytelling we trust as authentic, creates empathy and the ability to act generously for the group’s benefit. If we lose this faculty for storytelling, what we really lose is what makes us care about ourselves as a group.

2 thoughts on “Why We Tell Stories (And Why It Matters)

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