I started reading The Science of Storytelling because it was a non-fiction week and I wanted to change the theme away from feminism and leadership through empathy and kindness.
The author, Will Storr, decided to write the book when he discovered that there were many parallels between what psychologists and neuroscientists tell us about how the mind works and what storytellers tell us about narrative. To me, it felt like the book was at least as much about human behavior as it was about storytelling and I found it more interesting and fascinating because of it.
Storr argues that it’s not the plot that makes a book gripping and enjoyable, but that it’s the characters and our ability to relate to them and experience the change that they go through throughout a book. This change is essential. The story shouldn’t just describe what the protagonist experiences on the outside, it should also be about the world inside them. What do they feel when their core beliefs are challenged and how does this change them?
The world as we see it is actually constructed in our brains. As we observe the world our brains put a very strong filter over it, that is based on our genes and everything that we have experienced in life up until that point. No two people observe the same scene (in real-life or in a story) in exactly the same way and the amount of false information that our brains can put into any observation is staggering. We don’t do this on purpose. We wouldn’t be able to stop it even if we wanted to.
The way we experience reality is warped by faulty information. We create a distorted version of reality inside our skulls. Because this is the only reality we know, we have no way of determining what part we made up based on our biases and the narrative that we created about ourselves.
When people plead with us that we’re mistaken or cruel and acting irrationally, we feel driven to find a way to dismiss the arguments they present to us. We know we’re right. We feel we’re right. We see evidence for it everywhere. We all feel that we see and experience the one objective version of reality, yet we all experience something slightly (or not so slightly) different. The closer people are to us, the more likely it is that our filters are somewhat similar. This makes it easier to understand and often agree with these people. The more different someone’s experiences have been, the more difficult it is to imagine yourself being in their shoes. It’s not hard to imagine that this can be a source of conflict.
I can think of several moments in the last week that I have argued out loud or in my head about how my view of a particular situation is right and thus the other person’s view must be wrong. Reading this last paragraph makes me shiver. Would it be possible that how I see the world is not how it really is? Is it possible that I might be wrong?!?
The brain defends our flawed model of the world with an armory of crafty biases. When we come across a new fact or opinion, we immediately judge it. When it’s consistent with our model of reality our neural reward systems spike and we feel good about it. If not, we want to reject it and we look for justifications to do so. These responses are fully unconscious and they have a powerful influence over us. When deciding whether to believe something or not, we don’t usually make an even-handed search for evidence. Instead, we hunt for any reason to confirm what our models have instantaneously decided for us. On top of that, we kid ourselves that this one-sided hunt for confirmatory information was noble and thorough.
This process is extremely cunning. It’s not simply that we ignore or forget evidence that goes against what our models tell us (although we do that too). We find dubious ways of rejecting the authority of opposing experts, give arbitrary weight to some parts of their testimony and not others, lock onto the tiniest genuine flaws in their argument and use them to dismiss them entirely. If this doesn’t sound familiar to you, you haven’t been on social media much lately and might have been unusually productive by avoiding this time-consuming source of frustration.
If you think that you’re too smart to fall for the confirmation-bias trap you’re wrong. Intelligence isn’t effective at dissolving these cognitive mirages of rightness. Smart people are mostly better at finding ways to “prove” they’re right and tend to be no better at detecting their wrongness. I hope this makes you do a double-take and at least briefly reevaluate some of the discussions that you had recently.
While all of this is shocking, it also explains a whole lot. For instance about the debate on the seriousness of the climate emergency that we are experiencing in the world, but also about how certain world-leaders can continue to live with themselves and even still have a loyal following.
The models in our brains are flexible during childhood and adolescence. After that they become mostly fixed and changing them becomes harder and more painful. This explains why older people have more trouble dealing with change and why older people often seem to become more unreasonable and bigoted.
It also means that our experiences during our childhood and adolescence are very important. They are instructive to the people we grow up to be. Our popularity at school, the way our parents look at the world around them and the role models that we look up to influence how we experience reality and look at the world forever. It’s not impossible to change as a grown-up, but it is a lot harder.
A lot of us will naturally prefer storytellers who have a similar background to our own. If we want to get a better understanding of other people we should try to branch out. Through stories of people who have lived different lives to our own, we can experience different models first hand through the eyes of the protagonist. This can help us to become more understanding and appreciative of different cultures and ideas.
While emerged in a well-designed story, we start to think about a character as if we are them. Our bodies even physically respond as if we are. Our heart-rates might go up and our blood vessels might dilate. We become so absorbed in the world of the storyteller that we forget about our surroundings and we miss our train stop or forget to go to sleep.
This resonates strongly with me. It even adds a new excuse to the “why I don’t go to bed on time” list. I thought it was just me being stubborn and focused on the short term, but it’s actually because I’m temporarily suspended in a different world!
Although I realize we can’t force people to consume certain stories, whether in film or through books, people seeing the world through the eyes of their foes might be just what the world needs. If stories can help us to bridge the gaps in understanding and generate empathy for different cultures and ideas they might be what’s most likely to save us from eradicating the human race or even destroy our planet.
Having a better understanding of how my brain works and how unreliable it is, means that I will try to be more vigilant when I feel that I’m right. Knowing that understanding other people’s models will make me more sympathetic to their ideas, means that I will try to branch out in terms of the types of books and authors that I read. I know that I won’t be able to beat my brain and my biases, but I can at least try!
I could have written several completely different posts about this book, which is a testament to how full it is of interesting facts, stories, and information. I could have written about how happiness is mostly about being engaged in what you are doing at this moment and not about some pot of gold that is to be found at the end of the rainbow through some magical quest. I could also have written about how a gripping story follows the change that a protagonist is going through. Or about the power of metaphors and the use of cause-and-effect and how we confabulate. I also found it interesting to read about how similar a healthy brain and a mentally ill brain really are. It’s fascinating and frankly a bit scary to read about how competitive we are and how we perceive others who we deem more successful than ourselves for one reason or another.
If you are at all interested in the human condition or in how to tell a gripping story I recommend that you read The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr.