The science behind the human urge to tell stories

Can we prove how storytelling appeals to our neural processes?

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Although it has been more than 60 years since Ernst Gombrich delivered his Mellon lectures on art and illusion – the title of his subsequent bestselling book – the application of empirical thinking to works of culture or creativity is still considered a minority interest, even a kind of novelty. There are academic courses in critical approaches such as “evolutionary literary theory” and “cognitive poetics”, but they are taught by academics with devoted professorships in other fields of study.

With notable exceptions, most of the movement has been from the humanities towards the sciences, as was the case with Gombrich, who used cognitive psychology to illuminate the processes of visual representation; with the film scholar David Bordwell, who has cited Gombrich’s example; and with the Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd, who in his book On the Origin of Stories (2010) mentioned the “revelatory” experience of discovering Bordwell’s work. Now Will Storr, a journalist and writing teacher, has written an account of our story-telling instincts that doubles as a guide to telling better stories.

It would be hard to imagine a case of more wholehearted advocacy. The book is heavy with categories, dichotomies and tags (“identity claims”, “feeling regulators”). Storr begins with the idea that stories emerged to address the fact that life is “meaningless”. This does not explain why a child oblivious to the planet’s looming “heat death”, the “infinite, dead, freezing void”, may still enjoy an episode of Paw Patrol, but it’s true that a desire for order has always prevailed among human beings. Or, in Storr’s rather Tarzan-ish phrasing, “Story is what brain does.” He goes further, arguing with clarity and conviction that it is due to our brains’ desire for control that we are excited by stories of change. Boy meets girl. Stranger dismounts from horse. Complacent youth is humbled. Ancient order shows signs of frailty.

Storr succeeds in bridging evolutionary psychology and narrative theory, or making one the basis for the other. But unlike Gombrich or Bordwell, his aim isn’t to answer a critical question better. He’s probing his own craft in order to teach it to others. So it’s odd that he approaches the subject mainly as a researcher. He doesn’t bring to bear his experience of working on his novel, The Hunger and the Howling of Killian Lone; or of turning research into books, such as The Heretics; or, in his work as a ghostwriter, shaping reams of interview transcripts into a pleasing or plausible account of a life. It would be rather as if David Hockney had neglected to mention his life as “an artist, a mark-maker”, in Secret Knowledge, his remarkable study of optical devices.

Instead, Storr turns to novels and films for examples of storytelling that appeal to our neural processes, but they do little to help his case. He tells us that Raymond Chandler packs “a tonne of meaning” into the image “Dead men are heavier than broken hearts”; and that the lines “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” and “These go to 11” are “so dense with narrative information it’s as if the entire story is packed into just a few words”. His most frequently cited case studies are Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day and Citizen Kane, though neither is very representative, being less stories than meta-stories, respectively a faux-memoir of an unusually ruminative sort and the portrait of a journalist assigned to uncover what made a man tick.

Those working in the field known as empirical aesthetics generally proceed with a philosophical allegiance – to historical particulars or timeless human verities. Paul B Armstrong, for example, in How Literature Plays with the Brain (2013), was seeking to bolster his humanist credentials, whereas Hockney and Gombrich wanted to illuminate particular artistic conventions.

Strangely, given the book’s unabashed Darwinian emphasis, Storr tries to take both paths. He announces that “modernist stories are different”, and contends that Westerners enjoy stories of struggle over adversity whereas Easterners prefer harmony. He calls Knut Hamsun’s novel Hunger “stunningly prescient” for anticipating the formal discovery, in neurology, that human beings are “multiple and confabulatory”. (Harold Bloom found an elegant way round this sort of paradox when he wrote that Shakespeare invented psychoanalysis and Freud “codified” it.) But elsewhere, epochs and specifics are swept aside. DNA rules, “Stone Age values” predominate. The idea of cultural appropriation is dismissed on the grounds that “beneath our many differences, we remain beasts of one species”. (Problem solved.) At one point, he states that all stories – modernist or otherwise – are “tribal propaganda”, a means of advancing an agenda, asserting a world-view.

This conflict is evident in his handling of The Remains of the Day, which is partly read as an ambivalent elegy for a certain kind of England (global dominance, emotional reticence). But Storr also recognises Ishiguro’s taste for arcs and archetypes – the author has said that the butler is a metaphor – and the uses of a novel such as The Remains of the Day as a case study for how to craft a character and tell a story.

It’s in the writing manual section that the book is at its strongest. In one terrific passage, Storr explains that an audience’s curiosity – resembling the shape of the lower-case “n” – peaks when we know something and fades away when we know everything. Then, in an appendix, Storr elaborates his theory that “more traditional” – ie non-science-based – “attempts at decoding story”, such as Joseph Campbell’s monomyth” or idea of the “hero’s journey”, have emphasised ideas of plot and structure at the expense of what he calls “character work”. Storr’s concept of the “sacred flaw” – an over-compressed phrase referring to the faulty concept that a character holds sacred – is lucid, original, plausibly grounded in the science and proves once again just how much goodwill can be derived from a satisfying ending, even when it depends on a deus ex machina

The Science of Storytelling 
Will Storr
William Collins, 288pp, £12.99

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 18 April 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special