Once Upon a Time

God made man because he loves stories.

—Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlev

We tell ourselves stories every night, all night long. No one knows why we do this, except that we apparently need to. The storytelling is called dreaming. We do it in bursts throughout the night. Scientists know this because our eyes move in our sleep, following the action of the dream. This is called REM sleep, for rapid eye movement. If REM sleep is repeatedly interrupted, we can sleep but we won’t feel rested. If we don’t sleep at all, we may start hallucinating and eventually die. There is a rare genetic disorder called fatal familial insomnia – described by medical experts as “one of the worst diseases you can get” -- that kills its victims once the ailment progresses to the point where sleeping is no longer possible. Is this because they can’t sleep, or because they don’t dream?

We don’t just tell ourselves stories in our sleep, of course. We also do it when we are awake; in fact, it is one of the main things that keeps us occupied when we aren’t snoozing. We read stories in books and magazines, listen to them on the radio and in the pews, watch them on TV or at the movies and act them out ourselves. We play games with narrative content. We tell one another stories to make a point, and we tell ourselves stories to make sense of our lives. Stories may be spoken, sung or danced. They are painted on cave walls and mounted in museums. Altogether we spend perhaps a quarter of our waking hours on stories, real or imagined.

We want to know what happened and why. This “narrative hunger,” as the novelist Reynolds Price once called it, starts early. What small child has not used the demand for a story at bedtime -- if not two or three – as a tactic to postpone actually having to go to bed? Children learn about the world through stories and pretend play, which is just another form of storytelling. Partly through stories, they learn the language that enables them to tell stories of their own, which is how human culture gets transmitted. Did stories arise because humans had language to tell them, Price wondered, or did language arise because humans had stories to tell?

There are various theories about the evolutionary significance of storytelling. Our brains are wired for it, so presumably there is some selective advantage to being able to spin a good yarn. We are not the only species that can impart information. The lowly honeybee does a little waggle dance to alert other bees to a food source it discovered at a specific distance and direction from the hive. But is the honeybee able to regale its fellows with tales of its adventures along the way? What sets humans apart from other creatures is our ability to impart information that is counterfactual -- things that never actually happened but just might, whether for good or for ill. Aesop’s Fables, among the oldest narratives in existence, are ostensibly about talking animals (e.g., “The Grasshopper and the Ant”) but are clearly intended to guide human conduct.

If survival is the name of the game in evolution, it may seem counterintuitive that a capacity for counterfactual thinking would give us a selective advantage over creatures that didn’t sit around the campfire telling tales. You would think that facts, not make-believe, are what puts food on the table or alerts us to imminent danger. And yet counterfactual thinking enables us to imagine what might happen; to ask “what if” and “why not;” to entertain possibilities, no matter how far-fetched – in effect, to think two or three steps ahead in finding more food or in avoiding danger.

Imaginative thinking makes it possible to ask questions that are better answered by stories rather than by facts. Where do we come from? What happens to us after we die? What is the meaning of it all? The world’s creation myths universally invoke divine beings to explain such things. The stories told by the founders of our own tribe involve encounters with a God who is heard rather than seen, a telling detail. And another curious note: God gives the man he has formed from the dust of the ground the authority to name all creatures except for one. The man does not name himself; he is given his name. Is it not always the prerogative of the storyteller to name his characters? In this case, the story is not really ours to tell; in this case, we are the story that is being told.

Jennifer Vanderbes, “The Evolutionary Case for Great Fiction,” The Atlantic (September 5, 2013)

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