GENEVA — We are, you and I, narrative animals. The Homo sapien is "the great ape with the storytelling mind," as Jonathan Gottschall puts it. According to this researcher whose work places him at the junction between the theories of literature and evolution, we are the only species to enjoy this passion. Our brains never cease to create stories and to absorb those produced by others.
"Story is for a human as water is for a fish — all encompassing and not quite palpable," Gottschall writes in his 2012 book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. But why is that?
Outside the fields of biology and neuroscience, many essayists have attempted to describe and explain this compulsion, among them Umberto Eco in Six Walks in the Fictional Woods (1994) and Nancy Huston in The Tale-Tellers: A Short Study of Humankind (2008). Fiction, they write, enables us to tame the real world and to extract meaning from more or less disparate events in our lives.
The analysis was there. The only thing left to be done was for scientists to open up the brain's black box to see how our species' particularity fits into it and understand how our evolution through the ages gifted us with such a strange ability.
Our love story with narration stems from the fact that our understanding of the world and of ourselves is created by a cerebral system that never stops telling stories. Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, who has been studying and describing this phenomenon for four decades, calls it "the interpreter," a mechanism that "develops a story from our actions and gives us the impression to have a unified mind," he writes in his latest book, Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience.
But are the stories that this interpreter tells us true? The interpreter itself — so to speak — doesn't care: The only requirement is a minimum of coherence. "It uses whatever is at hand and improvises the rest," Gazzaniga writes. "The first explanation that makes sense will do. It generally helps producing new information."
The story of how the whole mechanism was uncovered has itself become a sort of legend. It was back in the 1970s. Gazzaniga was doing cognitive tests with patients whose cerebral hemispheres had been surgically separated to ease the effects of incurable epilepsy. For these patients, the two halves of their brains were therefore not communicating with one another.
Gazzaniga's experiment involved showing each patient two images, one for each eye, taking care to place a partition between the eyes to separate the fields of vision. The left eye, connected to the right-hand part of the brain, was shown a snowed alley. The right eye, connected to the left cerebral hemisphere, was shown a chicken. The partition was then removed to show the patients a new series of images to both hemispheres and finally ask them to point at the one that matches the best with the pictures they'd seen before. The left hand, commanded by the right cerebral hemisphere, chose a shovel.
"Why this choice?" the scientist would ask. The right hemisphere chose it to clear out the snowed alley, of course. But the left hemisphere, the one that controls language and therefore was answering the question, didn't know that: It didn't see the snow, only the chicken. So why choose the shovel?
The right answer there would have consisted in simply saying that they had no idea why. But the brain can't admit that because it's against its nature. So the patient said, "You need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed!" In other words, as it was trying to explain why, the patients' left hemisphere took the details it knew and concocted a story from that information.
Human mind games
This is what our brain does all day long, Gazzaniga writes. "It takes the impulses from its different parts and from its surroundings and synthesizes them in a story that makes sense." If all goes well, the explanation it finds will be correct. If not, it will at least have quenched our thirst for narration. "We humans are always looking for a pattern, for cause and effect, for the meaning of things."
The second cornerstone of our passionate relationship with storytelling is what narratology professor Lisa Zunshine calls "the theory of mind." From a young age, we all "theorize" that the human mind in general works in similar ways as ours in particular. This enables us to develop theories about other people's minds, gathering clues and putting them together to imagine what they might be feeling, thinking or scheming.
"As members of an intensely social species, we read fiction because it mobilizes our theory of mind in a particularly intense way," Zunshine writes in her 2006 book Why We Read Fiction, Theory of Mind and the Novel. "We read novels because it stimulates our theory of mind." Our penchant for narration therefore seems to have been selected by evolution because it maintains and develops our fundamental capacity of reading other people's minds.
But are we really the only species with a narrative mind and a taste for stories? Gazzaniga says we "probably" are, but many scientists studying non-human primates believe otherwise. A basic narrative mechanism that consists in creating a fictional reality can also be found among apes and maybe even other mammals. Chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans are indeed capable of acting by pretending that things aren't what they seem.
Kanzi, a bonobo studied by primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, is apparently able to "pretend to be eating food that's not there, to feed others with imaginary food, to hide that food, to find it, to take it from others, to give it back to them or to run away with an imaginary mouthful of it," the scientist explains. The same thing happened with Viki, the female chimp that Cathy and Keith Hayes tried to raise at home like a human child in the 1940s. The animal, they said, acted as if she was carrying a toy and sometimes even pretended the imaginary toy was stuck somewhere.
To conclude, we can say that although we can find the signs of narration among apes (and even dogs, according to Robert W. Mitchell in his book Pretending and Imagination in Animals and Children) and although the engine for literature resides inside the biology of our brains, in no way does this lessen the greatness of fiction, which takes the form not only of novels, plays, movies and TV series but also religious myths, political manifestos, gossip and conspiracy theories, not to mention our friends' stories on social networks.