Narrative Madness: Humans are the Stories They Tell about Themselves

(A summarized excerpt of my book Narrative Madness, edited by Katie Fox, which you can get at or on Amazon.)

What distinguishes humans from the animals are statements like “What distinguishes humans from the animals . . . .” In other words, the only thing that separates us from animals is an ongoing narrative that says we are not animals. The human is the animal that pretends that it is not. Most of our social rules are designed to hide our animal natures from ourselves: shaving our beards, using deodorant, wearing clothes, buying prepackaged meat, using silverware, not fighting over food, not farting or fucking in public.

But humans are animals, and animals tell stories. As primate groups grew, natural selection favored bigger brains, which were more adept at handling complex social situations, says primatologist Frans de Waal in the study Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes (1982). Bigger brains allowed the development of symbolic thought and, eventually, language.

Although grooming is the principal means of reinforcing social bonds in hominid groups, language is more efficient. Social grooming takes place one on one, while a conversation can occur among two to four humans. More than that and some are left on the sidelines, listening but not participating. This makes talking about 2.8 times more efficient than grooming.

And stories seem to be the most efficient method to communicate about world, others and self, as they are loaded with social information. If the social theory of the development of language is valid, narrative is the mortar of human society and the catalyst of culture. Stories brought us together and made us human, which is why Kerstin Dautenhahn, biologist and professor of computer science, calls us Homo narratus, the storytelling hominid.

Since narrative is a social act, it should come as no surprise that people mostly want to hear about, learn about, talk about, write about and read about other people. “Analysis of a sample of human conversations shows that about 60% of time is spent gossiping about relationships and personal experiences,” writes evolutionary psychologist Robin I. M. Dunbar in “Coevolution of Neocortical Size, Group Size and Language in Humans” (1993). He is suggesting that language “evolved to allow individuals to learn about the behavioural characteristics of other group members more rapidly than is possible by direct observation alone” (Dunbar Abstract). So, go ahead and gossip: you are helping to educate and maintain human society.

Such advice goes against the major impetus of “higher culture,” which is to draw our attention away from low gossip and toward elevated discussions of religion, philosophy, science and politics: “To the great distress (and ongoing surprise) of moralists everywhere,” writes Blakey Vermeule, professor of English, in her book Why do We Care about Literary Characters? (2010), “humans prefer social to other kinds of information, a fact that explains why, for instance, there are so many more human interest stories in the press than, say, detailed analyses of budget deficits and trade imbalances” (33).

Our evolutionary fixation on people, Vermeule says, explains why we prefer statistics, facts and problems “packaged in human form.” For example, if we hear that the galaxy is “about 587,849,981,421,001,300 miles across,” we blink our eyes and shrug. “100,000 light years across” is a little easier to understand, since it is told in terms of years. But we really have no grasp of 100,000 years. We think the Roman civilization, which was still around fewer than 1,600 years ago, was ancient. Nor can we conceive of the speed of light, except we know that it is very fast. Better if the fact is presented so: if our solar system “could fit into a coffee cup, our galaxy would be the size of North America” (from The Cosmic Mind-Boggling Book). I can understand a fact packaged like this, with a reference to something made for my hand.

Similarly, we cannot concentrate easily on facts and details in an account when they are not directly connected to a protagonist, according to four studies by cognitive psychologists Michael Rinck and Gordon H. Bower in “Anaphora Resolution and the Focus of Attention in Situation Models” (1995). In each experiment, subjects memorized a diagram of a building and various objects located within it. Next, they read narratives describing characters′ activities in that building, moving from room to room. Each target sentence contained a noun phrase referring to an object in one of the rooms: “He thought that the shelves still looked like an awful mess.” Reading times of target sentences increased with the number of rooms between the object and the protagonist, indicating that subjects had a harder time processing information the farther away it was from the protagonist (Rinck and Bower). Objects spatially separated from the main character are harder to focus on, understand and remember. We are much better at comprehending information when we imagine it to be in the physical proximity of a person.

Thus, narrative voice is important because it is much easier for humans to understand information passed on by a human whose presence can be felt. (You hear me?) On the other hand, too much voice can be annoying. Often readers want the author to just shut up and tell the story.

(Shekhar Kapur’s makes similar points in his excellent Ted Talk “We are the Stories We Tell Ourselves.” Watch it!)

Works Cited

Dautenhahn, Kerstin. “The Origins of Narrative: In Search of the Transactional Format of Narratives in Humans and Other Social Animals.” International Journal of Cognition and Technology 1.1 (2002): 97 – 123. Print.

de Waal, Frans. Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes. Rev. ed. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1998. Print.

Dunbar, R. I. M. “Coevolution of Neocortical Size, Group Size and Language in Humans.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 16.4 (1993): 681 – 735. Magyar Nevarchivum. PDF.

McAleer, Neil. The Cosmic Mind-Boggling Book: An Illustrated Guide That Uses Your Senses to Bring the Wonders of the Universe down to Earth. New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1982. Print.

Rinck, Michael and Gordon H. Bower. “Anaphora Resolution and the Focus of Attention in Situation Models.” Journal of Memory and Language 34.1 (1995): 110 – 131. Science Direct. PDF.

Vermeule, Blakey. Why do We Care about Literary Characters? Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2010. Print.

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