Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

Why Stories Are Vital

People have been telling stories for almost as long as there have been people. Sometimes those stories have been told through art, as in the cave paintings found in Asia and Europe. Sometimes music has served as the medium and, before written language appeared, music assisted in transferring knowledge from one generation to the next.

Yet the most direct way of relating information remains through words, either written or spoken. But why are stories so important?

There’s actually a scientific reason.

Humans have about 86 billion neurons. One of the tasks those neurons engage in is making sense of the world. They do it partly by assigning cause and effect. We see a thing happen before a second thing happens and when it does so consistently, we assume that the first causes the second. This is why the sun (and to a lesser extent, the wind and rain and thunder and lightning) was deemed a god by some early cultures. The sun rose and started the day; the sun set and ended the day. Therefore, the sun must be powerful.

Think about how you react when someone tells you of an event that makes little sense, like the Germanwings flight 9525 crash that killed 151 people. How could the co-pilot deliberately crash the plane into a mountain? So we try to explain it. We examine his life and writings, the comments he made to friends or family or doctors, to try to piece together his motivation for acting so horribly. We still find it difficult to understand, but we feel slightly better when we can attribute some sort of reasons to his actions, however twisted they may be.

We need order. We need a narrative. It’s how we process the world around us, how we make sense of all the things we observe every day. Those 86 billion neurons need something to do with their time and creating narratives for events we witness becomes a task they happily perform.

It doesn’t even matter if the narrative they create is wrong as long as it makes some sort of sense. That’s why we enjoy fiction as well as non-fiction. We want story. Our brains need a narrative. It doesn’t matter if it’s a story we know can’t be true. What matters is that it’s a narrative that could be true, that has the potential to carry truth.

We want stories that we wish were true because then the world might be a better place, and from that desire, we extrapolate to believing the world is a better place because of the story itself, not the veracity of the tale. As long as we can immerse ourselves in the story, we deem it good. The more it sucks us in, the better.

If there were no stories, our minds would soon deteriorate. We need the stories to keep our brains sharp, to keep those 86 billion neurons firing. Without stories, those neurons would die and we would become less complicated, less able to process conflicting information.

In fact, we can’t live without stories. If there were no stories, we would have to make up our own. We would need to in order to retain our sanity. That’s how it all began, with people telling stories to keep their brains active, though they probably didn’t know that was why they were doing it. Their neurons were putting the stories into their heads and compelling them to speak, to draw, to sing.

That’s the foundation upon which we build our tales. Our brains tell us to create, so we create. Our neurons say they’re bored and they want a story, just like our four-year-old children. So our brains comply. It doesn’t really matter, in the final analysis, why we tell our stories. What matters is that they’re necessary to our survival as humans.

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