How Stories Configure Human Nature

Any story we tell of our species, any science of human nature, that ignores how important stories are in shaping what and how we think and feel is false. We evolved to be ultra-social (and self-deficient), so we care deeply about character and plot.  


1. It is in our nature to need stories. We arrive “biologically prepared” for them. They were evolutionarily crucial. We feel and think in story-logic (story-causality configures our reaction-biology).

2. Like our language instinct, a story drive—inborn hunger to hear and make stories—emerges untutored (=“biologically prepared”).

3. “Every culture bathes its children in stories" (to explain how the world works, to educate their emotions).

4. Story patterns are like another layer of grammar—language patterning the character types, plots, and norms important in our culture.

5. Stories free us from the limits of direct experience, delivering feelings we don’t have to “pay for” (~like simulated people-physics experiments).

6. “Stories the world over are almost always about people... with problems.” Story = character(s) + predicament(s) + struggles(s).

7. Story patterns transmit, often tacitly, social rules and norms (e.g., what constitutes violation, or what reactions are expected/approved).

8. The “human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.” We can use logic inside stories better—consider Wason’s Test, ~10% solve it as a logic puzzle, but 70-90% do when it’s presented as a story, involving social-rule cheating.

9. Social-rule monitoring was evolutionarily crucial (“other people are the most important part of our environment”).

10. Social acceptance shaped ancestral survival. Violating social rules could mean exile or exclusion from group benefits (protection, big-game, etc).

11. Darwin saw how biologically active the stories in our social environments are—“Many a Hindoo…has been stirred to the bottom of his soul by [consuming] unclean food.” But if eaten unknowingly, it wouldn’t cause that reaction.

12. The story of the food, not the food itself, causes “soul shaking.” Story-causality triggers our emotional biology (our physiology can interact with stories like they’re real threats).

13. Stories configure the emotional/physiological triggers and reactions expected in our culture (patterns that are like an “emotional grammar”).

14. Any story we tell of our species, any science of human nature, that ignores how important stories are in shaping what and how we think and feel is false.

15. Nature shaped us to be ultra-social (and self-deficient). Hence to care deeply about character and plot.  

--

Illustration by Julia Suits, author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions, and The New Yorker cartoonist.

'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
  • Patients from low-income neighborhoods are most at risk of negative health impacts.
  • Thankfully, health care professionals are not alone. Upstreamism is increasingly part of our cultural consciousness.
Keep reading Show less

Afghanistan is the most depressed country on earth

No, depression is not just a type of 'affluenza' – poor people in conflict zones are more likely candidates

Image: Our World in Data / CC BY
Strange Maps
  • Often seen as typical of rich societies, depression is actually more prevalent in poor, conflict-ridden countries
  • More than one in five Afghans is clinically depressed – a sad world record
  • But are North Koreans really the world's 'fourth least depressed' people?
Keep reading Show less

Banned books: 10 of the most-challenged books in America

America isn't immune to attempts to remove books from libraries and schools, here are ten frequent targets and why you ought to go check them out.

Nazis burn books on a huge bonfire of 'anti-German' literature in the Opernplatz, Berlin. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Culture & Religion
  • Even in America, books are frequently challenged and removed from schools and public libraries.
  • Every year, the American Library Association puts on Banned Books Week to draw attention to this fact.
  • Some of the books they include on their list of most frequently challenged are some of the greatest, most beloved, and entertaining books there are.
Keep reading Show less

Is there an optimal time of day to exercise?

Two new studies say yes. Unfortunately, each claims a different time.

Bronx, N.Y.: NYPD officer Julissa Camacho works out at the 44th precinct gym in the Bronx, New York on April 3, 2019. (Photo by Alejandra Villa Loarca/Newsday via Getty Images)
Surprising Science
  • Research at the Weizmann Institute of Sciences declares evening to be the best time for an exercise session.
  • Not so fast, says a new study at UC Irvine, which replies that late morning is the optimal workout time.
  • Both studies involved mice on treadmills and measured different markers to produce their results.
Keep reading Show less