04 January 2009

The Story and Human Nature

There exists a fascinating relationship between stories (narratives) and human nature. In fact, the human brain seems hard wired to prefer narratives. Given a list of hard facts and an intriguing but iffy story, we will always prefer the story. This is why there are so many urban myths, and why gossip thrives – we have an insatiable appetite for stories.

Our affinity for narrative over facts could even be a defining characteristic of the human species (how would an alien species without this ability act/think). Somewhere in out past, narratives provided an evolutionary advantage over the processing of pure facs. Now we are stuck with it.

Even in the most complex and extreme circumstances, such as the current credit crunch, which takes us completely by surprise we cannot help but construct a simple narrative to explain what happened. Regardless that as a race we could not see it coming, we construct a narrative, which had we known the story before the event, would have made the danger obvious to everyone.

I’m reminded of how a primitive tribe on an isolated island survived the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, without a single loss of life, despite their entire village being washed away. They had a story, which had been passed down through the generations, a legend or myth we would call it. This story basically said that when the sea god gets so angry he sucks all the water from the sea, run like hell for the hills.

Someone saw the sea being sucked backwards by the approaching tsunami, remembered the story, warned the village, and everyone acted on it: they ran for the hills. Their survival depended not on knowing the facts or mechanics of tsunamis, but on remembering a vague story hundreds of ears old. Canadian Indians have a similar story, about the sky god spreading his wings and holding back the sea, leading researchers to suspect a tsunami may have hit Canada sometime in the dim and distant past.

This affinity for stories is great news for us story tellers, because it means stories will never go out of fashion. There will always be a market for a well told intriguing stories, because that’s the way we are built.

Nick Travers