The Indiana University professor Fritz Breithaupt published a book explaining how stories have facilitated humanity’s development, cooperation and life plans
“Maybe the famous nomads in Africa were [at] the same site. They were gathered [together] without [engaging in a lot of] activity. And then they would focus on one individual who would try to communicate what had happened to them, to her, to him, somewhere else. Maybe they had seen a dangerous animal, or they had seen food, or one of their group members was sick or injured somewhere else, or something else... That’s how I imagine it. I don’t assume that language was there. I assume that they would do something like pantomime. And others would understand...They bring a presence to something that’s not present,” explains the researcher. “One of the core [elements] of narratives is that they bring us out of the here and now. We can imagine a past situation. Once you have that effect, these people, I mentioned these early people, start to kind of decouple from the here and now. They can recall an event from the past or imagine and plan for the future, and that opens up a world of possibilities,” he speculates. Breithaup just published The Narrative Brain, a profound essay in which he explains why stories are so important.
Question. In the book you talk about how some people pit stories against scientific thought, how the latter can be a source of reliable knowledge while deception creeps into stories, and you remind us that Plato wanted to kick poets out of his ideal republic because they spread disinformation. But the philosopher was also carried away by the appeal of his own untrue stories.
Answer. We live our own narratives. We don’t notice this… we get carried away. But in other people, we can be very skeptical of them. We expose them as, oh, this is just propaganda… [With] our own narratives, that’s us. But the others, they have just stories and propaganda and words. And they’re all deception and deceiving.
Q. You also talk about the importance of stories in cultivating empathy, sharing experiences and building identity and values. That is a positive thing, but it can also be negative, can’t it? Many stories that reinforce our bonds and shared values among a group do so by pitting them against those of another group.
A. Empathy in principle is so wonderful because it works with everyone. And narratives [are] the same way. If you tell me the story of the experience of anyone far away, and that can be someone who’s politically, geographically, historically far away from me, I still can co-experience their situation. So for me, empathy is [really] about co-experiencing the situations of others. And that’s why it is so close to narratives. Because narratives allow us to do that. So, in principle, this is fantastic. We developed the large brain, in evolutionary respects, not so much to solve problems but to have that ability to co-experience.
Now, here comes the catch.... Narratives can get us to empathize with anyone. But one of the common triggers of empathy has to do with taking sides... When you and I observe a conflict, there’s two others, it can be a couple in the bar. We see a couple, we don’t know them, they’re starting to argue, and we happen to just be sitting there watching… And what humans tend to do... is we take a side. We also see it [in] sports… we don’t even know them, but we pick a side. We see the situation from their perspective. Then we copy their feelings. And the others seem to be enemies, they’re the bad guys, or the other team. But one of the key starting points for that is often this side-taking when there’s a conflict… So empathy is great for individual experiences, transcending ours. We’re not locked in our [own] brain. We are now sharing a space here too. And that means empathy can be really bad for conflict resolution. People always think empathy is good for solving a conflict. No, empathy is making it worse. To make a conflict less potent, we usually have to step back and say, no, not empathy. Let’s be calm. Let’s talk about how you solve this one particular issue here. On that level, empathy is very dangerous. Empathy makes us stuck in one narrative or another one, one side or the other one. It’s not easy to break out of that.
Human evolutionary biologists now basically agree that our brain is an empathetic brain.
Q. Could the ability of narratives to recall the past and predict the future also be the source of many of our mental problems, the depression of being trapped by one’s past or the anxiety of uncertainty about the future?
A. Narratives are super powerful because they… promise us an emotional reward. many of us imagine a positive outcome. Triumph, love. It can be all kinds of things... So in many cases, this is a positive thing... But… some people… get stuck in a negative space… So when they see a situation, they know [it] will end badly. They always come back to this bad memory… It will always be bad. Or some people also get very anxious about… all these things [that] could happen. They have too many narrative versions in their mind… It’s not just predictive brain in the narrow sense… We predict so many different things and that can be a dangerous space…. The solution to the problem in many cases is also a narrative one, namely that you learn to tell your own stories, that you take some agency in it. And there are different strategies for how to do that. Some people try to change the big story. That’s hard. So therapists [and] also people in the political realm who want to change bad narratives [do that]. When you have an [anxious] moment of too many possibilities you’re afraid of, [focusing] on one small [thing] often helps and opens a better door, so to speak.
Q. We are surrounded by stories, novels, movies and shows told by professional storytellers. Is it possible that we’re telling our own stories less often now?
A. I do see that as a huge danger for us: we lose individual storytelling. One of the many places where I would hope that more storytelling happens is in school. In the last 30 years… in school, there’s been a lot of emphasis… on learning math skills.... Young children… don’t get to tell their stories a lot anymore. We don’t have so many places where this happens and even school plays a big role in that… In the schools, there’s pressure on performance and kids telling stories [about] what they did [over] the weekend, that doesn’t sound like it’s a great performance, but it is important. That’s really… a very relevant way to grow up.
Of course… people are constantly on social media and social media has to do with storytelling, but it is quite different because you’re not telling it live… Social media can have the effect of letting people tell their story [from] far away… So people can find communities where they connect with similar experiences… But the real [issue] is actually not social media [itself]; it’s the time spent on the phone. It’s the time spent away from connecting in real life with real people and sharing experiences. There’s something about being in the same space and saying, hey, how are you?
Some people try to change the big story. That’s hard. Therapists and people in the political realm want to change bad narratives.
Q. Are there some stories that are more natural than others? Are there universal stories that might appear independently at different times in separate human groups?
A. I do not think there is a universal core story. However, in terms of folklore, we know that [there are] probably stories [that] have been with mankind for a long time now. So, it may just be that the same stories have been retold and retold in many different areas. So, I think they’re actually not independent from each other, but rather they go back to some early storytelling. I mean, this is the speculative part. I think our ancestors in Africa may not have had language yet in our modern sense, but they already had some basic theatrical hand-to-mime presentations. So, they had something like a couple of stories, experiences they were sharing, hunting, social ones too… death and all of these things. So, I think there’s a reason why a lot of stories resemble each other… stories spread very well.
Lots of people like Campbell, a scholar 70 years ago, thought all stories are one story. It’s always about a hero [who] goes in the vault and comes back. He said, that’s a basic story. And I thought, how can I get to that? Is there neuroscience for it or is there some experimental cognitive model for that? So… we did story retellings, the telephone game. We wanted to see when people get any kind of story, how they change it in their retelling. So, we look at the large patterns of that. And the idea is that at the end you should have the basic narratives. If there is a universal story, then all stories eventually should move in that direction. And we did that [experiment], and I think ultimately, there is not one core story. It’s more like there’s certain elements of stories that make good narratives. It’s not one basic core story that it comes down to. But the element that constantly plays a role is that stories need to have an end. You have expectations, but you do need this ending point. And this ending point has a lot to do with emotions. There’s an emotional kind of endpoint. And it can be all kinds of emotions. But you do need that happy ending [or] the embarrassing story. It needs to end somewhere or surprise [people in some way]. Surprise is also an emotion on some level. So that’s kind of one of the things that you need to get at. And that means that the emotion isn’t there in the beginning… So, you need change to get to that… So, you have an arc in a story… There’s a lot of other elements too. I mean, I would say there’s no story without… what I call multiversionality.... It could go this way or that way. Otherwise, it is boring.