Science

The Science of Storytelling

8 August 2016

We will die but our stories won’t.

Storytelling is a quintessentially human trait. Through stories, we simulate human conflict, sorrow and joy, breathing life back into our own existence.

But how do stories begin and how do they grow? Why are we so eager to listen to and tell them? Perhaps the explanation is simple: as a species, humans like seeing things in narrative. We make things into stories, which help us understand the world and ourselves.

Say the last line of The Great Gatsby out loud and notice how its rise-and-fall mimics the ebb and flow of waves upon a shore:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

It has a lilting cadence that hovers between resignation and hope. Almost a sigh, it carries a sense of loss. Fitzgerald’s novel is about how one tells – or fails to tell – a story; how the story itself ruptures amidst a disintegrating American dream. The narrator, Nick Carraway, struggles with his own story even as he enacts it – his inconsistencies and biases reveal sharp fissures in his narrative. This allows us to see him as an unreliable storyteller; a tinted lens through which we read the events of 1922. This closing line suggests a recursive process of mourning but also the faint possibility of renewal. It strikes a minor chord as one of the most memorable lines in modern literature.

Stories are not a superfluous indulgence or a way to simply pass the time. The universal nature of myth suggests that storytelling might have even been essential to our survival. Given the gregarious nature of our species, stories have been said to be a way of seeking recognition and status: storytelling, commanding attention, honing creativity and cognitive dexterity. As well as transmitting important information – where to hunt and forage, where to avoid – stories helped to warn against potential threat. They were crucial then, perhaps even necessary.  

The Aboriginal Australian practice we call ‘Dreamtime’ means to see and to understand the law. Dreamtime denotes a psychic space that is not bound by time. In this space, spiritual connections are formed with ancestors of the land, creators of animals, plants, rocks as well as natural contours. These spirits determine the dynamics of kinship between groups and individuals, as well as their relations to the land, the animals and other people. Aboriginal mythologies thus encompass religion, history, geography and cosmography. They are maps that infuse the local landscape with meaning.  

A few years ago, Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn bought cheap trinkets from various thrift stores and garage sales, paired them with original stories and posted them on eBay. The reason? To find out how much stories are worth today. The objects, purchased for $1.25 apiece, sold for nearly $8,000 in total. The Significant Objects project showed that stories can confer objective value on things previously discarded as worthless. We relish the prospect of possessing someone else’s world – tchotchkes become treasures once they are infused with someone else’s meaning.

Stories don’t just give things meaning of course –  they are inherently valuable. We are drawn to good stories. Through image and the written word, we build stories around other people’s lives. This is why Humans of New York is so popular – it chronicles surprising, intimate encounters with people we would probably sidestep on the street. Reading a Humans of New York post on Facebook is like falling into conversation with a stranger – part of its appeal lies in the serendipitous, ‘chanced-upon’ nature of a true, undiscovered tale.

According to the narrative model of identity, the individual is their own protagonist in a lifelong journey. They face the challenges of intimacy and autonomy, expressed through archetypal characters, turning points and varying outcomes. Such a personal narrative can situate us meaningfully in society and culture, providing unity to the past, present and future. Narrative-based psychotherapy helps people ‘re-author’ their identity and rewrite their story based on newly-acquired knowledge, beliefs, skills and values. Changes in one’s personal narrative predict improvements in mental health, an increased sense of agency and better trauma recovery. Anchored in narrative, our stories about ourselves can uplift, guide and influence our lives. We become the stories we tell – here, the message is the medium.

But what role do stories play in the architecture of our minds? Perhaps we live our way into our stories. We perceive and filter information through cognitive frameworks called schemas. Like a narrative frame through which a story is told, schemas help us interpret our lives, slotting into place various characters, relationships and dynamics of conflict and resolution. Schemas are remarkably stubborn – they endure through our emotions and behaviours. For instance, people struggling with depression often have schemas that insist ‘I’m a failure’ and ‘I will never get it right’. In this way, we are constantly constructing a story – we notice things that fit into our narrative frame, distort other things to fit and discard those that cannot. Like any good author, we meet our own narrative expectations.

Often science itself takes the form of story. In quantum physics, for instance, we use narrative frames to explain well-known phenomena: Which slit did the photon go through? Was the electron behaving as a wave or a particle? Did the act of viewing the experiment disturb it? Such stories superimposed on science raise more questions than they answer but it is through them that we understand something of the world. What, then, can science say about stories? We know about meter, rhyme and rhythm – what makes Dr. Seuss enjoyable to read aloud and your toaster manual tedious? But can we quantify narrative using cold, hard mathematics? It turns out that there is, in fact, a formula to narrative greatness: statistical analyses of famous works of world literature revealed a surprising symmetry in sentence length variation.

Physicists at the Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Polish Academy of Sciences found that many of these texts – including the works of James Joyce, Julio Cortazar, Marcel Proust and Umberto Eco – are governed by the dynamics of a cascade, where each fragment of the story is a replica of the whole. The fractal organisation of one genre turns out to be an exceptionally complex stream of consciousness. Astonishingly, the novel Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce showed a structural pattern virtually indistinguishable from ideal, purely mathematical multifractals. This coincides with recent findings that the brain itself is, in fact, a fractal feedback loop – fully symmetrical, self similar and recursive – which is crucial to our processing of information, words and music. If the structure of the mind is fundamentally complex, the literary realisation of subjective consciousness might reveal deeper insight regarding the relationship between language and thought. Which takes precedence? Do we think in natural language? Or is language merely a vehicle for central cognition? Stories, then, set out to deceive but they might show us something that we don’t already know. They are a medium, a mirror, through which we can investigate the very nature of attention and perception.

Story begins with perception – the words on the page trigger neuronal firing and the scene embeds itself in memory. Letters arrange themselves into meaning. Your left hippocampus tells you what’s going on, while your right hippocampus processes broad, overarching themes: love, life, death. Are you one of those overly involved literary types? It is your amygdalae that produces this emotional resonance. The right amygdala grounds you in contextual reality – if you’re reading a thriller, it reassures you that there’s no immediate threat. Your left amygdala gives you perspective – a vantage point from which you can observe the unfolding of events. And you might find it easy to locate yourself in a story. This is an essential element of empathy, which is mediated by Theory of Mind – the ability to understand what someone else is feeling.

It is clear that stories impinge on our humanity and human instinct is tied to narrative. Focusing only on empirically verifiable ‘truths’ would lead us away from a rich repository of knowledge in which we find a common history. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” To read a story is not just to skim a page or a passage: metaphor, analogy and symbol arrange themselves into significant patterns; a narrative texture against which you make – or find – your own meaning.

And so neurons fire. Glutamate is released. Synapses are activated. Engrams join. And as you read, your memory takes in events, plot, characters; your mind flexes and feeds back into itself. You string letters together, translate shape to sound, draw from knowledge and emotion, as perception is moulded to narrative. Words become sentences, setences become stories – story forms, you read on.