What We're Reading: The Science of Storytelling by Will Storr

Abi Dauber Sterne
January 3, 2023

This book is a beautiful meditative piece on the nature of stories and narratives. While the writer is targeting novelists and other writers to help them construct better stories, I read this book as presenting a metaphor for understanding why each of us believes what we believe, and why we fight against what we don’t believe. A few passages have particularly stayed with me:

The brain constructs its hallucinated model of the world by observing millions of instances of cause and effect then constructing its own theories and assumptions about how one thing caused the other. These micro-narratives of cause and effect – more commonly known as ‘beliefs’ – are the building blocks of our neural realm. The beliefs it’s built from feel personal to us because they help make up the world that we inhabit and our understanding of who we are. Our beliefs feel personal to us because they are us. But many of them will be wrong…
Nobody, however, is right about everything. Nevertheless, the storytelling brain wants to sell us the illusion that we are. Think about the people closest to you. There won’t be a soul among them with whom you’ve never disagreed. You know she’s slightly wrong about that, and he’s got that wrong, and don’t get her started on that. The further you travel from those you admire, the more wrong people become until the only conclusion you’re left with is that entire tranches of the human population are stupid, evil or insane. Which leaves you, the single living human who’s right about everything – the perfect point of light, clarity and genius who burns with godlike luminescence at the center of the universe. Hang on, that can’t be right. You must be wrong about something. So you go on a hunt. You count off your most precious beliefs – the ones that really matter to you – one by one. You’re not wrong about that and you’re not wrong about that and you’re certainly not wrong about that or that or that or that. The insidious thing about your biases, errors and prejudices is that they appear as real to you as Mr B’s delusions appear to him. It feels as if everyone else is ‘biased’ and it’s only you that sees reality as it actually is.
Psychologists call this ‘naive realism’. Because reality seems clear and obvious and self-evident to you, those who claim to see it differently must be idiots or lying or morally derelict. The characters we tend to meet at the start of a story are, like most of us, living just like this – in a state of naivety about how partial and warped their hallucination of reality has become. They’re wrong. They don’t know they’re wrong. But they’re about to find out . . .

You can take or leave the word “hallucination,” but the idea that we all have our constructed truths is incredibly hard to internalize, even if we know it to be true. I’ve been mulling over the question that this begs: Is it possible to remind ourselves that each and everyone one of us has constructed the reality in which we live, and thereby gain empathy for other people’s realities? And if so, how do we do this?

Storr also provides a compelling metaphor for the “bubbles” we each inhabit, that he refers to as tribes:

We still have this primitive cognition. We think in tribal stories. It’s our original sin. Whenever we sense the status of our tribe is threatened by another, these foul networks fire up. In that moment, to the subconscious brain, we’re back in the prehistoric forest or savannah. The storytelling brain enters a state of war. It assigns the opposing group purely selfish motives. It hears their most powerful arguments in a particular mode of spiteful lawyerliness, seeking to misrepresent or discard what they have to say. ..It takes its individuals and erases their depth and diversity. It turns them into outlines; morphs their tribe into a herd of silhouettes. It denies those silhouettes the empathy, humanity and patient understanding that it lavishes on its own. And, when it does all this, it makes us feel great, as if we’re the moral hero of an exhilarating story.

Above, Storr not only compares modern-day “eco-chambers” to prehistoric tribes, and claims that they have very real consequences: the erasure of depth and diversity, empathy and humanity. He continues:

When all the good is on our side and all the bad on theirs, our storytelling brain is working its grim magic in full. We’re being sold a story. Reality is rarely so simple. Such stories are seductive because our hero-making cognition is determined to convince us of our moral worth. They justify our primitive tribal impulses and seduce us into believing that, even in our hatred, we are holy.

While Storr points out quite clearly the dangers of tribes because of their exclusive nature, he doesn’t highlight the good that can come from being part of a tribe. Tribes provide a sense of home and rootedness. Put differently, Storr raises for me, in a new way, the tension between particularism (tribalism) and universalism (anti-tribalism). Storr explains that the dangers of tribalism can be mitigated by stories. He explains: 

The lesson of story is that we have no idea how wrong we are. Discovering the fragile parts of our neural models means listening for their cry. When we become irrationally emotional and defensive, we’re often betraying the parts of us that require the most aggressive protection. This is the place in which our perception of the world is most warped and tender. Facing these flaws and fixing them will be the fight of our lives. To accept story’s challenge and win is to be a hero.

In many ways, the stories we’ve written in our book help us face our flaws, but equally or even more importantly it’s the stories that we learn from and about others through conversations and healthy arguments, that we hope will help our collective society find and fix its flaws.  

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