Science and Stories: an Unlikely Alliance?

IMG_1549The first rush of readers downloading From Apes to Apps: How Humans Evolved as Storytellers and Why it Matters, were writers.

Not surprising that writers want to understand how stories affect their readers, but this ebook is in the BiteSize Science series: making accessible new research in neuroscience and psychology, anthropology, biology, linguistics and archaeology to explore why our brains are structured to act on stories, and how this can be a liability in our digital environment.

 “Storytelling is universal: it should come as no surprise that research indicates one of its most important components – metaphor – to be part of our genetic heritage: a mechanism for thinking embedded in our mental software.” (From Apes to Apps).

A science book about storytelling? The approach crosses genre boundaries – anathema to most publishers – but we need both fact and imagination to understand ourselves. One without the other is fish without chips – half a meal, not fully satisfying. Both scientists and writers generate their best work through the same question: ‘What if…?’

And scientists’ brains work with narrative like the rest of us, using sequential and ‘cause and effect’ thinking as well as sub-plots of lateral thought to make their discoveries. They also need to understand the role of narrative, of storytelling, to communicate what they find in a way that we can understand.

“Scientists use different methods and have many more rituals and rules, but they address the same questions that gave rise to the first shamans, soothsayers, and spiritual leaders: all strive for better stories.” (From Apes to Apps)

I had my fingers crossed when I submitted an early draft of the manuscript where ‘talking drums’, Aboriginal ‘dreaming’, even vampires and George Orwell jostle with genes, mirror neurons and empathy circuits, but I also explained why I was so passionate about writing it. So I was overjoyed when I received those sweet words: Go ahead. We’ll publish it

“We started to tell each other stories about how to sustain the good things in life; what to do about the fearful things we didn’t understand, such as where the sun went at night, and the things we still don’t know, like where a ‘person’ goes when they die.” (From Apes to Apps).

The thesis of this study – that storytelling skills gave an evolutionary advantage to our early ancestors – is an original perspective on human development, and in probing how this inheritance affects our modern lives, I draw on an innovative branch of psychology, the psychology of fiction: a fairly new field already offering fascinating insights into the role of stories in our thinking and behaviour.

In a recent experiment carried out at the University of North Carolina, researchers Dr Melanie Green and John Donahue found that non-fiction also influenced readers’ attitudes, especially when, as in ‘new journalism’, material is focused around a personal character. The full story is given in From Apes to Apps, but briefly here, for one Pullitzer Prize-winning feature, published in the Washington Post, the original effects lingered, even after the article was exposed as fabrication. A scary thought.

A brain that is structured to act on stories, makes us vulnerable in a digital environment where powerful entities compete for our attention through an unprecedented range of electronic devices; devices that can even record what, and how, we are reading.

That is why I am passionate about sharing this work. Throughout history, power has always been bolstered by the control of narrative– it still is.

From Apes to Apps: How Humans Evolved as Storytellers and Why it Matters, a cautionary tale none of us can afford to ignore.

A cautionary tale none of us can afford to ignore

A cautionary tale none of us can afford to ignore



This entry was posted in publishing, Stories, Uncategorized, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Science and Stories: an Unlikely Alliance?

  1. olivecollins says:

    For the first time, I too am reading non-fiction. It a very valid point that “power has always been controlled by control of the narrative”. Thanks for your blog.

    • Trish says:

      Hello Olive, thank you for reading my post and commenting. If it has inspired you to understand better our need for fiction and what that entails, then I am very happy. Enjoy your reading.