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
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
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,
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
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
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.