What journalist Will Storr teaches us about the science of storytelling.
Thousands upon thousands of creative souls in human history have recognized the power of story to engage and inspire. Shigeru Miyamoto may have been the first to capitalize on its application for video games, but he is just another member of a fraternity of novelists, playwrights, movie makers, musicians and artists of all kinds. What truth have these creative and brave souls tapped into about the nature of humanity? Will Storr, a storyteller in his own right, has an answer. Storr is an accomplished journalist and nonfiction author from the UK. Storr’s fascination with storytelling and how humans form beliefs began in childhood and culminated in part with the release of his most recent book: The Science of Storytelling. It is in this book he argues that the power of story is hardwired in our brain's physiology, because evolution has proven stories to be vital for our survival.
The evolutionary value of stories begins with a much more simple to understand phenomenon about our brains: change. Our brains are at their essence machines designed through evolution to notice and process changes in our environment. Consider that change in one’s environment is usually the first warning sign of danger, and it’s easy to reason why this trait would be helpful. To notice this phenomenon in yourself, imagine you are walking down the street on a bright, sunny spring day. You turn the corner and notice the tree on your street that had been dead for most of the winter has begun to sprout leaves. That’s a moment of change. Then, behind you, you hear someone scream your name to grab your attention. That moment of startle? That’s another moment of change.
Stories use these change moments to hook and enchant the audience into following the rest of the narrative. Think of your favorite moments in movies. Luke learning the Empire had murdered his Aunt and Uncle while receiving an invitation to fly to Alderaan? Change moment. These moments grab our attention. But stories aren’t just moments of change. In a lot of ways, stories are the moments between these changes, and the meaning we place on them. Why does our brain crave this information as well?
Humans evolved as a tribal species. Before massive organizations like countries, governments, police forces, etc, we wandered from place to place in groups. To form these groups, we needed to evolve ways to quickly police these groups and determine whether a member could be of value to the group, or would hurt the chances of the group's survival. This is where a primitive form of storytelling, gossip, began to evolve in humanity. Think of the archetypical hero and villain story. The hero is cast as the character who is willing to be selfless and sacrifice their needs for the good of those around them. This trait would be very valuable as a member of a tribe. Villains, in contrast, are usually cast as highly selfish and unwilling to put others before their own needs and desires. This would not be very valuable in a tribe or group. The early hero and villain stories through gossip is how we began to decide what our groups stood for, and who belonged in them.
Gossip enabled groups to efficiently self-govern and determine who deserved to be in our out of these groups. The value of gossip to survival is what began to imprint the brain's desire for story as a means not only for our group's survival, but also for our own individual survival. For as much as tribes needed numbers of people to increase their strength and likelihood of survival, individuals also needed tribes to increase their own chances of survival as well. Therefore, our brains are predisposed to crave the rewards that come from our own “heroic” choices as the result of moments of change in our own personal hero’s journey. The more we behave in ways we feel are heroic to the tribes or groups we crave belonging to, quite literally the healthier we become psychologically and physiologically.
Storr quotes social psychologist Professor Roy Baumeister saying “Life is change in search of stability”. When change moments occur, our brain craves the comfort of felt internal control and external control through social belonging. Storr argues that this craving is an unavoidable aspect of human nature that stories tap into, imprinted on the physiology of our brains through evolution as an adaptation to increase our chances of survival through groups.
While this may explain why every day stories, like the person who screamed your name and startled you on the street, have so much of a pull on our attention, why do stories in art and entertainment? To understand this, is simply to understand human empathy. Since we are all, on some level, cast as heroes in our own stories dealing with change moments in the quest for our desires, we can easily see ourselves in others cast in similar roles navigating similar change moments. When someone gets wrapped into Star Wars, they aren’t hooked solely because of the rapid pace of change and stimulus on screen, they are hooked because they see parts of themselves in the characters. We can feel how shocking of a change moment it would be to lose your beloved Aunt and Uncle to a selfish, villainous empire. And as such, we also know after hours of change and chaos, the relief of achieving justice against that same selfish Empire by destroying their Death Star and regaining a sense of control and order in our world, while also earning heroic belonging in the Rebel Alliance.
This is the same phenomenon that Shigeru Miyamoto tapped into in Donkey Kong. We see ourselves in Mario. We know what its like to desire the belonging with our girlfriends that was taken from us by a selfish pet gorilla out for revenge. We revel in the chaos of the constant change of barrels and new obstacles in our quest to scale the skyscraper. And we know the relief and sense of control and order when we finally are back with our girlfriend where we belong.
Miyamoto intuitively knew that by layering in story to his game experiences, he would be tapping into something innate about human nature and its attraction to stories. This attraction, as Will Storr detailed, is because our craving for stories is imprinted on our physiology due to their value in our evolution to help form shared beliefs, trust, and groups. The archetypes in even simple stories like Donkey Kong play out again and again, and the best creators know how to harness them to create perpetually engaging and meaningful works of human expression.