Are our Brains Wired to Enjoy Stories?

Presentation experts extol the power of telling stories in presentations. A recent Scientific American “The Secrets of Storytelling” explores why stories are so powerful. It looks at three theories from the fascinating field of evolutionary psychology.

Stories are simulations for real life

flight-simulator2Keith Oatley, is a professor of applied cognitive psychology and a novelist. So he’s got a special interest in the psychology of fiction. He describes stories as “simulations that run on minds”. He says that just as pilots-in-training spend time on flight simulators, stories may act as flight simulators for real life. Well-known evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker says storytelling may have evolved because it was a useful “thought experiment”. By running a scenario and visualising what happens we learnt what might happen in real life. This equipped us to deal better with real life. So people who were more receptive to stories had an evolutionary advantage over those who weren’t so receptive. (For more on this see Pinker’s article “Toward a Consilient Study of Literature”).

We create stories to better understand other people

circleIn stone-age times, our ability to get on with other people was crucial to our survival. As a result we have what psychologists call “Theory of Mind” – we’re constantly guessing what other people are thinking and feeling. Our tendency to attribute thoughts and feelings to other people, leads us to create stories. In a 1944 study¬† reported in the Scientific American article, psychologists showed people an animation of a pair of trianges and a circle. The people naturally described what was happening in the form of a story eg: “The circle is chasing the trianges”. We’re naturals at creating stories out of what we see and experience.

Storytelling helps us know what’s going on

gossipAnthropologists note that storytelling is universal across cultures and throughout history. They hypothesise that storytelling about other people helped our ancestors survive and thrive. Our survival was dependent on living with other people – storytelling about others would have helped us learn who we could trust and who we couldn’t. Frank T McAndrew in “Can Gossip¬† be Good?” says:
People who were fascinated with the lives of others were simply more successful than those who were not, and it is the genes of those individuals that have come down to us through the ages.
The phenomena of gossip magazines and celebrity culture are possibly the modern equivalent of ancient storytelling. So the presentation experts have got good reason for recommending the use of stories in your presentation. Your audience is wired to listen to them.

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