Why Do We Love Story? (Part II.)


We are nearing the end of the semester, but I asked the class to re-visit, in their minds, the summer before they were freshmen at EIU. As a new student, they filled out countless forms, paper and electronic, that pertain to this school: the Panther card, the parking permit, the online access to D2L. Other than being tedious, all of these activities have at their core writing. Writing, which is so often considered a door that opens into a creative journey, was first created out of need, as was all basic inventions. The need was to organize people in one of our other great inventions: the city.

One of the earliest pieces of writing is this clay tablet found in what is modern day Iraq. clay tabletWhat treasured bits of poetry is found here? None. The tablet documents the allocation of beer to workers. In other words, one of the first examples of writing is a time card.

The history of writing is too great to explain here, but I’ll hit upon some key points. We have Socrates who warned that writing down speeches would make us weaker. (In fact it was his student Plato who wrote down his speeches.) We have the era when writers were simply scribes and the wealthy need not learn this specialized skill, similar to how I don’t bother to learn plumbing seeing as how I can call someone to the job. Much later, we have the invention of the novel, which many feared would ruin our minds and then the horrible addition of female novelists such as Jane Austen.

The truth is, writing and literature have only further developed our minds and made opportunities where we could not previously conceive of them.

We then turned our attention to Jonathan Gottschall’s book, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, that explores a problem posed in the preface: “We do not know why we crave story. We don’t know why Neverland exists in the first place. And we don’t know exactly how, or even if, our time in Neverland shapes us as individuals and as cultures. In short, nothing so central to the human condition is so incompletely understood.”

By using biology, psychology, and neuroscience, Gottschall attempts to answer why story has such a hold over us. As we discussed in the last blog, we spend inordinate amounts of time in the realm of story—some research claiming as much as 2/3 of our time, if we include dreaming. But we don’t know why we do that. Here are some possible reasons that Gottschall’s book, and our class, explored:

  1. Sexual selection. In other words, telling good stories helps people acquire mates and therefore reproduce.
  1. Stories are a form of cognitive play. This type of work helps the mind prepare for future problems the way exercise helps keep the body in shape.
  1. Stories are low-cost sources of information. They are meant to instruct, even when they might seem banal. Think of that classic scene featuring the double-chip dipper from Seinfeld, the show some say is about nothing. One could argue that even that silly moment is one of instruction: double dipping is unsanitary.
  1. The mind is adept at detecting pattern, which is incredibly beneficial to us. And story is one way to hone that very necessary skill. Example: understanding the pattern of the stars enabled many a sailor to find his way home. If you think about it in a certain way, the alphabet is process of recognizing pattern.

In fact, we are known to create story where there is none, a fact exemplified by this 1944 experiment by Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel. It just lasts two minutes, so watch it and see if you can correctly answer the question: What do you see? Only 3 out of 114 participants answered correctly. (I’ll post the correct answer at the bottom of this blog. No peeking!)

  1. Story is a form of social glue that brings people together, similar to sports and religion.
  1. Story is for nothing at all. Or another way to say this is that stories are escapist. But let’s think about that…. What is the central thread that runs through every story? Conflict. Trouble. If story were truly escapist, then wouldn’t it be a whole lot softer and fuzzier, like, let’s say, internet pictures of kittens?

Just the other day, I was driving my two-year-old to the library, and she started wailing from the backseat that she didn’t want to go there. “Why not?” I asked. “There are lions there. They eat me.” I started to coo and soothe, saying oh no, lions do not live within the library stacks, at least not in the children’s section, when she scowled: “Pretend, Mom. Pretend.” It was hard to imagine that this child would rather imagine running from lions than running toward a warm library on an unusually cold November.

Granted, there is no right answer, or at least, we don’t know the answer now. But this is one question that literary evolutionists are trying to answer. Our next class will receive a visit from one of Literary Darwinism’s founders: Joseph Carroll. As I have said before, we are thrilled to have him come talk to our class about his interdisciplinary approach. (Thank you to the Redden Fund and the Humanities Center at EIU for the grant!) I’ll be sure to report back on what he says in answer to this question.