The Science of Storytelling
Scientists studying the origin of humans use the clues of ancient artifacts to help shed light on many facets of our evolution, including the development of culture in our species. In the World Science Festival panel “Why We Prevailed: Evolution and the Battle for Dominance,” anthropologist Alison S. Brooks showed a photo of six snail-like shells thought to be 100,000 years old that had synchronized piercings with smooth edges and coloration, suggesting they were strung like a necklace and worn on a body-painted “person.” What was the purpose of this Neanderthal art? A primitive marriage symbol? A tribal identifier? A designation of leadership? And what story did the wearer tell about it?
That question lingered in my mind at a subsequent panel “Why We Tell Stories: The Science of Narrative.” While storytelling itself may have been a component of our prototype years, the science of storytelling is a very young field. Jonathan Gottschall, a writer at this intersection, noted its infancy — there’s only about 15 years of active scientific research in hand. Why? He said neither scientists nor humanities scholars feel it’s their jurisdiction. He advocates for bringing experts in these disciplines closer together to more rigorously advance our understanding of this uniquely human gift.
The panel was an intriguing and entertaining example of how writers and scientists can jointly explore the wide spectrum of theories and questions in this arena. Authors Joyce Carol Oates and Jeffrey Eugenides, psychologist Paul Bloom, novelist and psychologist Keith Oatley, and Gottschall discussed everything from the neurological functions in the brain of a reader to storytelling’s role in cognitive development in children, from the differences in the art of storytelling itself to its sociological implications in our individual and communal lives, from the nature of its psychological depths to the value of its aesthetic heights. What is the effect of “constantly marinating ourselves in fiction” like we do? Why do children’s stories often center around some type of trouble, when we would expect them to want to avoid fearful or sad narratives? What’s the future of storytelling? Will video games evolve beyond action genres to include virtual engagement in a Henry James or Jane Austen story?
In closing, moderator Jay Allison brought me back around to evolution. As one of the creative forces behind the popular public radio program The Moth, he noted the remarkable appeal of the show’s utterly simple and primitive form — individuals telling true personal stories, without editing or sculpting or elaborate production.
What’s the power of storytelling in your life? What do you think is important to advancing this field of inquiry?
(Click on the panel title links above to replay the live stream of both these events.)