Why We Tell Stories

It is often said that without stories, humans would be no different than animals. To have language but not the ability to use it to tell stories and create worlds would diminish much of the human experience. The origin of storytelling closely follows the beginning of recorded human history, causing one to think that it is an innate skill for humans. Though it is a known fact that humans are storytellers, few people wonder why there is this strong desire and tendency to tell stories.

Before there were traditional books and publishing houses, stories were told through oral tradition and from portrayals of writings on walls. The oldest example of storytelling was featured in the Chauvet cave in France around 36,000 years ago. Inside the Chauvet cave, “The cave paintings are believed to tell the story of a volcanic eruption” (Van Pelt). The intention behind these paintings could have been to warn future generations or to inform them of their history. In terms of recorded stories, the first known ones are The Epic of Gilgamesh and Homer’s The Iliad, dating back to 700 B.C. Both stories have the essence of the hero’s quest, a plot around which many stories are built, particularly the classics. Due to the fact that these stories were recorded and then spread to a wide audience of people, they were able to be exposed to and loved by many. The enjoyment from storytelling was given an entirely new meaning as it suddenly had a platform for which the stories could be spread.

Originally, storytelling was derived from an evolutionary need to survive. In early civilization, storytelling could be as simple as “One Neanderthal warning another not to eat berries by sharing the tragic story of what happened to the last guy who ate them” (Moss). Because stories have kept humanity alive with their transferring of information, it is a feature of all countries and cultures. Its evolutionary benefits have contributed to the universality and innate quality of storytelling.

Progressing the same idea of storytelling as a need for survival, a study conducted on the Agta community, which is a hunter-gatherer population in the Philippines, shows the high likelihood of storytellers having a partner and creating offspring. In the study, the participants were asked to name five people from their community with whom they would prefer to live. Storytellers were chosen over those with excellent reputations for hunting and fishing. This study concurs with the fact that within the pool of participants, storytellers had 0.53 more living children than the others (Kluger). The profession of storytelling deemed one more popular and likable, therefore allowing them and their children a higher chance of survival.

Storytelling also stems from a larger desire to mentally escape. Reading and writing stories affect humans on a neurological level, causing “Heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex. The neurons in this region are associated with tricking the mind into thinking the body is doing something it’s not” (Moss). Neurons enable humans to put themselves in the shoes of the characters they are reading and writing about, allowing them to achieve the escape from reality that they were seeking.

Similarly, storytelling builds empathy among readers and writers. Writing about characters with completely different experiences than one’s own makes room for extensive research to be conducted. Stories allow a sneak peek into the thoughts and emotions of character’s lives, which helps to inform and bridge the gaps between one’s own understanding of life and a character’s potentially vastly different understanding.

In a study conducted by psychologist Dan Johnson concluded that reading fiction increased the capacity for empathy, particularly empathy toward populations societally deemed as “outsiders”—anyone of a different race, religion, or origin country than the reader. Johnson discovered that as the absorption of the story the readers were, the more empathetic they also became. This was measured by Johnson dropping pens, and the participants who were more absorbed in the story were twice as likely to help pick up the pens (Delistraty). Picking up the pens was a physical form of empathy and exertion which helped Johnson conclude the correlation between storytelling and empathizing. Empathy allows people to have higher emotional intelligence and a better understanding of each other and where they come from.

For eons, storytelling has helped humanity survive both literally and figuratively. It has given people the means to adapt, create offspring, mentally escape, and better empathize with others. Although the world is often not looked at through the same lens as a story, better familiarizing oneself with characters and stories gives them the tools to read people and emotions in real life. Stories also serve as a universal invisible string, connecting every human. “Perhaps the real reason we tell stories again and again—and endlessly praise our greatest storytellers—is because humans want to be a part of shared history” (Delistraty). If nothing else, humans seek connections and attachments that make them feel alive. More than anything else, stories do that, and that is why humanity and storytelling will always be one and the same.

Works Cited

Delistraty, Cody C. “The Psychological Comforts of Storytelling.” The Atlantic,

Atlantic Media Company, 3 Nov. 2014.

Kluger, Jeffrey. “How Telling Stories Makes Us Human: It's a Key to Evolution.”

Time, Time, 5 Dec. 2017.

Moss, Laura. “Why Do We Tell Stories?” Treehugger, Dotdash, 12 May 2020.

Van Pelt, Jennifer. “The History of Storytelling.” Words Alive, Words Alive, 5

Sept. 2018.

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