Humans Hard-wired for Storytelling

Have you ever wondered about the science of storytelling? The latest issues of Scientific American takes on this challenge – The Secrets of Storytelling: Why We Like a Good Yarn – a nice survey article on some of the latest research on storytelling – and evidence that supports the primordial human instinct to get down to storytime.

Below is an excerpt that especially struck my fancy, about the universality of story themes across culture, even across the evolution of time. Other examples cited in the article including cognitive psychologists, evolutionary biologists, and cultural anthropologists.

Boy Meets Girl …
A 2006 study by Jonathan Gottschall, an English professor at Washington
& Jefferson College, found relevant depictions of romantic love in
folktales scattered across space and time. The idea of romantic love
has not been traditionally considered to be a cultural universal
because of the many societies in which marriage is mainly an economic
or utilitarian consideration. But Gottschall’s study suggests that
rather than being a construct of certain societies, romantic love must
have roots in our common ancestry. In other words, romance—not just
sex—has a biological basis in the brain.

“You do find these commonalities,” Gottschall says. He is one of
several scholars, known informally as literary Darwinists, who assert
that story themes do not simply spring from each specific culture.
Instead the literary Darwinists propose that stories from around the
world have universal themes reflecting our common underlying biology.

Another of Gottschall’s studies published earlier this year reveals
a persistent mind-set regarding gender roles. His team did a content
analysis of 90 folktale collections, each consisting of 50 to 100
stories, from societies running the gamut from industrial nations to
hunter-gatherer tribes. They found overwhelmingly similar gender
depictions emphasizing strong male protagonists and female beauty. To
counterbalance the possibility that male storytellers were biasing
gender idealizations, the team also sampled cultures that were more
egalitarian and less patriarchal.

“We couldn’t even find one culture that had more emphasis on male
beauty,” Gottschall notes, explaining that the study sample had three
times as many male as compared with female main characters and six
times as many references to female beauty as to male beauty. That
difference in gender stereotypes, he suggests, may reflect the classic
Darwinian emphasis on reproductive health in women, signified by youth
and beauty, and on the desirable male ability to provide for a family,
signaled by physical power and success.

Other common narrative
themes reveal our basic wants and needs. “Narrative involves agents
pursuing some goal,” says Patrick Colm Hogan, professor of English and
comparative literature at the University of Connecticut. “The standard
goals are partially a result of how our emotion systems are set up.”

Hogan does not consider himself a literary Darwinist, but his
research on everything from Hindu epic poems such as the Ramayana to
modern film adaptations of Shakespeare supports the idea that stories
reveal something about human emotions seated in the mind. As many as
two thirds of the most respected stories in narrative traditions seem
to be variations on three narrative patterns, or prototypes, according
to Hogan. The two more common prototypes are romantic and heroic
scenarios—the former focuses on the trials and travails of love,
whereas the latter deals with power struggles. The third prototype,
dubbed “sacrificial” by Hogan, focuses on agrarian plenty versus famine
as well as on societal redemption. These themes appear over and over
again as humans create narrative records of their most basic needs:
food, reproduction and social status.


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