Story is Your Brain, Outsourced

Most people think of story – first and foremost – as a fabulous source of entertainment. But did you ever wonder why we all love a good story? And we do – storytelling is a human universal. There is no society that doesn’t engage in it, delight in it, and depend on it. What’s up with that? That’s what neuroscientists wanted to know. Especially since the brain never devotes time or space to anything that doesn’t further its sole purpose: our continued survival. In other words, story, it seems, serves a powerful purpose beyond the ephemeral joy it bestows.

So, how does story help us survive?  First, let’s bust a very common myth, the one that says we only use ten percent of our brain. Totally untrue. We use it all, to capacity in fact. Always have.

Thus in order to evolve into the species that rules the world (talk about beware of what you wish for!), the brain had to find a way to outsource crucial information that it didn’t have the space to store.

What kind of information? Information about the future. After all, it’s our ability to envision the future that distinguishes us from just about every other species, and that’s allowed us to outsmart them.

Or, as Ogden Nash put it:

The hunter crouches in his blind ‘Neath camouflage of every kind, And conjures up a quacking noise To lend allure to his decoys. This grown-up man with pluck and luck Is hoping to outwit a duck.

The trouble was, there were infinitely more possible future scenarios, even when it came to duck hunting, than our elegant brain had the ability to catalogue.  So the brain farmed out these myriad calculations – think of them as “what would happen if?” scenarios -- to the world’s first virtual reality: story.

But for this to actually work, nature had to find a way to coax us to put the oft-treacherous real world on hold, the better to surrender to a good story.  In other words, getting lost in a story had to be pleasurable.

That rush of intoxication you get when you relax into a good story? It’s a surge of the neurotransmitter dopamine. What triggers it? The desire to find out what happens next.  Why? Because story is how we learn the ways of the world.

So you want to write a story that engages and delights people? Start by thinking about what you have to say about human nature.  How will your story help people make it through the night?