Why Do We Tell Stories

Why Do We Tell Stories?

Why we are endowed with narrative imaginations? Why are those imaginations so central to our lives?

I’m not referring to our use of imagination to solve technical problems, as in Kekulé’s benzene-ring dream and the “thought experiments” of Galileo, Einstein, and Schrödinger.  The purpose of that kind of imaginative reasoning is obvious. What is less obvious is why every culture expends so much time and energy creating what we call “fictions,” preserving them, and transmitting them.

Not only does every culture value its stories, but stories constitute the essence of culture. National identity is narrative. Religious belief is storytelling. Whether we are Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, Native American, or members of another religious group, we distinguish our belief systems from others largely on the basis of the stories we share with our contemporaries and pass on to our heirs. People even kill over issues involving such narratives.

Since I believe stories, imagination, and dreams are closely related, I also ask myself: Why do we dream? Are we not telling ourselves stories when we dream? And if we are, why?

Of course, many people have addressed this last question, from the writers of the Bible to Freud, and right up to contemporary neurologists. At a dinner party last night, a friend of mine, a researcher in the field of artificial intelligence, told me he believes dreams are a random byproduct of certain nocturnal brain processes. Their sensory content is chaotic and meaningless. The emotions they produce are a desultory consequence of the firing of neurons in emotional centers of the brain. I listened and nodded, then came home, went to sleep, and experienced a dream whose structure itself was a cogent response to my friend’s remarks. I woke up and said to myself: That dream was a beautifully shaped story, complete with emotionally evocative symbols and fascinating characters,  some of whom came from real life and some of whom I have never met. The interactions between these characters were complex.

As a writer, I know how hard it is to construct a story like that. Randomness has a role in stories as in life, but – despite the experiments of Dada – when chaos becomes an organizing principle, the “directionality” or forward momentum of a story goes by the wayside. In my dreams, at least in those that I remember upon waking, I feel a strong forward pull, often involving mystery, wonderment, confusion, elation, fear, desire, or sadness. On the evidence of my experience of dreams, I am incapable of believing that the content of dreams is random. Nor am I convinced that science is equipped to address the question of why we dream.

There are many kinds of stories, including folktales, medieval romances, hard-boiled detective mysteries, and the nouveau roman. But all stories (at least, the good ones) share common features. They all have a dramatic form that involves setup, complications, climax, and dénouement. The beating heart of every good story is human emotion, which is not the same thing as sentimentality. All good stories examine moral and psychological issues – right and wrong, fear and desire – not abstractly or schematically, but by reference to human experience. The best stories try not to oversimplify these issues, but to present them with the bewildering complexity of real life.

There is something universal not only about the act of storytelling, but also about the form and even the content of the stories we tell. Just as all languages are built from similar components, such as nouns and verbs, and just as the natural universe seems to clothe a mathematical framework, so the stories we tell seem to obey certain immutable laws. These laws provide for infinite variation and flexibility.

The analogy to math is suggestive. Plato, of course, believed that mathematical “forms” represented a reality more true or pure than human experience. I believe something similar about stories. We tell stories in an effort to get at the essence of human experience.

If this hypothesis is correct, then it follows that the essence of human experience involves conflict, desire, connections and disconnections between individuals and events, emotions, and the search for moral purpose. These appear to be issues that preoccupy us at the deepest levels of our psyche. When we tell stories – particularly when we do so through the most sophisticated, flexible, and nuanced medium ever developed, the written word – we build bridges between souls. Not only is this something we humans do; it is something we need to do. It is part of the reason we are here.