Recalling facts takes up mental energy. If facts can be threaded together into a sequence, recalling them will be less demanding. This way of arranging information is so effective that particular stories outlast whole civilisations. A folk tale known as ‘The Smith and the Devil’ has retained the same plot for 6000 years, and it’s found in Indo-European cultures from India to Sweden.
Storytelling seems hardwired into our cultures and societies. Common narrative features – described as ‘The Hero’s Journey’ – can be identified in Christian scriptures, fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, and even the Harry Potter books. This has led some to argue that some narratives are universal – which is a hard claim to evaluate. But research does support the idea that the same basic stories are repeated in Western culture. Statisticians have analysed the Project Gutenberg library of over 59,000 digitised books to test the idea, and they identify six common emotional arcs.
- ‘Rags to riches’ (rise).
- ‘Tragedy’, or ‘Riches to rags’ (fall).
- ‘Man in a hole’ (fall-rise).
- ‘Icarus’ (rise-fall).
- ‘Cinderella’ (rise-fall-rise).
- ‘Oedipus’ (fall-rise-fall).
Stories are an effective means to convey information, and that’s partly because they draw listeners into the narrative. We become invested in the characters, who pursue goals. The way they pursue them expresses values that we relate to.
That provides an evolutionary explanation for why we tell each other stories that neither storyteller nor audience actually believe in. For cognitive biologists, stories are particularly effective at conveying norms. Reporting true events in a narrative will hold an audience’s attention to a certain extent. We’re likely to pay attention for longer if the events affect people we know.
But fiction brings in the human capacity for play. When we play, we expand our experience within safe boundaries. A storyteller asks their audience to suspend their disbelief – we engage with ideas beyond our own experience. But the emotional arc of the story binds its content to our own experiences. We return from the world of fiction, we have the chance to reflect on the social and cultural bounds we live within. We can reflect – at a safe distance – on whether they’re desirable, and whether they can be changed.