The Science Behind Our Love Of Storytelling

Stories for humans, like water for fish...

Our brain never stops creating stories and absorbing other people's
Our brain never stops creating stories and absorbing other people's
Nic Ulmi

GENEVA â€" 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 â€" 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 â€" so to speak â€" 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.

Primate storytellers?

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.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

A check operation in Indian-administered Kashmir, following a spate of targeted attacks on the region's Hindu minority

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Здраво!*

Welcome to Friday, where Joe Biden vows to protect Taiwan from China, Alec Baldwin accidentally kills a cinematographer, and can you guess what day it is TODAY? We also have a report from a researcher in San Diego, USA on the sociological dark side of food trucks.

[*Zdravo - Macedonian]


Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry may be set to ease, or get much worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before, writes Persian-language media Kayhan-London:

The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.



• Biden vows to defend Taiwan: U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States would come to Taiwan's defense if it were attacked and had a commitment to defend the island nation that China claims as its own. The White House clarified for the second time in three months that U.S. policy on the subject has not changed, and declined further comment when asked if Biden had misspoken.

• Call on China to respect Uyghurs: A statement from 43 countries denounced China's human rights record at the United Nations over the reported torture and repression of the mostly Muslim Uyghurs, as well as the existence of "re-education camps" in Xinjiang. The declaration calls on Beijing to allow independent observers immediate access. In response, Cuba issued a rival statement shortly afterwards on behalf of 62 other countries claiming "disinformation".

• Alec Baldwin fires prop gun, kills cinematographer: U.S. actor Alec Baldwin fatally shot cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injured director Joel Souza after discharging a prop gun on the set of his new movie, near Santa Fe. The accident is being investigated.

• Berlusconi acquitted: Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was acquitted of judicial corruption charges. The 85-year-old media mogul had been accused of seeking to bribe guests present at his infamous "Bunga Bunga" parties to lie about the evenings as part of an underage prostitution case.

• COVID health workers death toll: A new WHO working report estimates that between 80,000 and 180,000 health and care workers may have died from COVID-19 between January 2020 and May 2021. The same report also noted that fewer than 1 in 10 healthcare workers were fully vaccinated in Africa, compared with 9 in 10 in high-income countries, and less than 5% of Africa's population have been vaccinated.

• Seven killed in Russian gunpowder factory blast: An explosion at the Elastik gunpowder and chemicals plant southeast of Moscow killed at least seven people, while nine are still missing.



Dutch daily De Volkskrant pays tribute to "sound master" and renowned classical conductor Bernard Haitink, who died at 92. Born in Amsterdam, Haitink made more than 450 records and led some of the world's top orchestras in the span of his 65-year career.


The food truck, a sign that the white and wealthy are moving in

In San Diego, California, researcher Pascale Joassart-Marcelli tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun. In The Conversation she writes:

🥡 In 2016 in City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice). Just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors — who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets — now face heightened harassment.

🤑 Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation. Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure. It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies.

🏙️ My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44. When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com


€6.65 million

The remains of "Big John," the world's largest triceratops skeleton ever found, were sold at auction for a European record price of 6.65 millions euros in Paris to a private anonymous collector from the U.S. The 200 pieces of the skeleton were unearthed in 2014 in South Dakota and reassembled by specialists in Italy.


Police bust Mexican drug gang recruiting boys via online video games

Police in Mexico have intervened to rescue three minors, aged 11 to 14, from recruitment into a drug gang that had enticed them through online gaming.

A top Mexican police agency official Ricardo Mejía Berdeja, said the gang had contacted the youths in the south-central city of Oaxaca, chatting through a free-to-download game called Free Fire, which involves shooting at rivals with virtual firearms.

Calling himself "Rafael," another player of the same age, the suspected gang member offered one of the youths work "checking radio frequencies and watching out for police presence" in Monterrey, northern Mexico, reported national daily El Heraldo de México. The pay was unusually good — 8,000 pesos (almost $400) every two weeks — and the youth called two friends who also wanted to get in.

The three boys were set to take the bait, but an anonymous Mexican intelligence agent following the exchange while also posing as youth playing Free Fire, ultimately led police to a safe house in Santa Lucía del Camino, outside Oaxaca.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com


"I just want to make China understand that we are not going to step back."

— U.S. President Joe Biden vowed to defend Taiwan if it came under attack from China, an assertion that seems to move away from the U.S. stated policy of "strategic ambiguity." His administration is now facing calls to clarify this stance on the island.


Paramilitary soldiers are conducting a check operation in Indian-administered Kashmir, following a spate of targeted attacks on the region's Hindu minority that have left at least 33 dead since early October. The region, claimed in full by both India and Pakistan, has been the site of a bloody armed rebellion against India since the 1990s — Photo: Adil Abbas/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

DO YOU FIND PEOPLE WHO WRITE IN ALL CAPS PARTICULARLY ANNOYING? Feel free to COMPLAIN, or otherwise let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!