The Science Behind Storytelling

Our brains are hardwired for narrative. Now we’re starting to understand why.

Carl Alviani
Oct 11, 2018 · 7 min read
Sheherizade und Sultan Schariar (1880) — Ferdinand Keller

Human beings have been telling stories as long as there’s been a language to tell them in. We think in stories, remember in stories, and turn just about everything we experience into a story, sometimes adjusting or omitting facts to make it fit. In a business context, the degree to which a product or communications strategy fits a strong narrative is often the differentiator between success and failure; between “Just Do It” and the also-ran campaign for a forgotten shoe brand (Fila, anyone?).

But it’s only recently that we’ve stopped to ask why we think in stories, from an objective evolutionary point of view. Early answers to these questions shed some useful light on the value of stories as a design tool — something Victoria and I have been practicing and advocating, without really knowing the science behind it, for several years now.

The short explanation is that our instinct for story is a survival skill.

Humans don’t have sharp fangs, thick hides or blinding speed; our evolutionary advantage has always been our problem-solving ability, and in particular, our ability to solve problems as a group. This tendency to cooperate creatively at large scale (it’s true that ants and termites cooperate, but only on repetitive tasks) has featured prominently in every major advance we’ve made as a species, from the invention of agriculture and cities to the Industrial Revolution and the Information Age. None would be possible without creative effort on a massive scale, shaped by common goals shared by large numbers of people.

Achieving this kind of persistence and unity requires imagining outcomes that haven’t yet come true, and of seeing your neighbor’s welfare as tied up with your own. And this is where story comes in. In the days before written language — most of human history, in other words — the only way to create an idea that persisted from one day to the next and spread from one person to another was to somehow make it durable in our minds (or “sticky”, to use a popular bit of marketing jargon).

A story solves this problem by linking an idea to an ego. It presents a sequence of events that haven’t happened but could, and invites listeners to put themselves in the role of the one experiencing those events — what today we’d call the protagonist. We all have a strong, persistent sense of self, and stories essentially hitch a ride on the self, leveraging our self-awareness to lend emotional heft and durability to an abstract idea.

Crucially, the better we’re able to invest our ego into that fictional protagonist — to expand our notion of self and take on another’s perspective — the stickier the story and the idea become. It can be a global story that lasts millennia, like the struggle of the Savior, the Buddha or the Prophet, that binds millions together in social, cultural or military action. Or it can be a more focused story, like the struggle against hunger that unites us to bring in the harvest, or the nobility of beauty that inspire us to create transcendent works of art, or write and perform symphonies. Human capability is immense; it’s the alignment of those capabilities that makes the difference between progress and defeat. And stories align like nothing else.

The Harvesters — Pieter Breughel the Elder

If you Google a phrase like “hardwired for stories” and sift through the resulting articles and TEDx talks, you‘ll find a concentrated frenzy of thinking on the subject, almost entirely from the past ten years: a period of heightened interest in and experimentation on the elements of narrative and their effect on the human brain.

This talk, by researcher and author Kendall Haven is a good example, summarizing the results of several years of investigation into the memorability and persuasiveness of different kinds of story structures:

Humans, it turns out — both anecdotally and in numerous trials — respond most strongly to stories that follow a particular general structure. It looks like this:

  1. A character, that we have been made interested in, has a goal, which is backed by a clear, understandable motive.
  2. But the character has not yet reached the goal, and is blocked by obstacles that engender risk and consequences of failure.
  3. The character must struggle to meet the goal. Allied characters and resources are encountered, which aid in overcoming the obstacles.
  4. Once the obstacles are overcome and the goal is reached (or not, if the story is tragic) a new normal is established, which remains in stasis until a new incident prompts a new goal.

For a lot of us, the main response this elicits is, “Well duh.” It’s the structure of practically every novel, movie, TV show, comic book, video game, etc. that any of us have ever encountered, so describing it as an experimental insight feels a bit like announcing that gravity acts downward, or that fire is hot.

But if we think about it carefully, it’s also kind of remarkable in its specificity. Why must the story revolve around a single human (or human-like) character? Why do there have to be obstacles to overcome? — couldn’t we tell a story about simply pursuing something and achieving it? Why does the new normal have to be different from the old one?

There are dozens of these little necessities in a good story, and each has a fairly obvious answer: We identify with human characters. A journey’s not interesting unless there are obstacles. If the end situation is the same as the start, the effort feels futile. But these are only obvious in terms of our own human experience: we know they’re the right answers because we inherently know the difference between a satisfying and unsatisfying story. Because our understanding of narrative is — again — hardwired.

The real insight is that these details aren’t objectively inevitable. It’s possible to imagine a human culture whose stories don’t involve central characters, obstacles or new normals, but such a culture doesn’t exist. The classic narrative structure shows up in the Bhagavad Gita, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Coyote stories of Navajo tradition, the Tale of Genji, and every play of Greek antiquity. It’s not a fluke.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu kill the Bull of Heaven. Cylinder seal impression.

Our preference for this kind of pattern is so ingrained, in fact, that we often alter our memory of events to make them fit it, or invent new ones from scratch. Memory, we’ve learned through plenty of research, is a creative act, in which we subconsciously work to put the things we’ve experienced into a resonant structure so that they stick. This is why your memory of last week’s night out on the town with your friends might differ from theirs: you’re the hero of your story, each of them is the hero of theirs, and you’re all going to nudge the truth of what happened to make it resemble a personal journey of enlightenment, or noble struggle against some obstacle.

This is often what makes bad digital and service experiences so bad, by the way. If our interaction with a website, an app, a device or a service doesn’t follow a clear arc —

old normal > clear goal > obstacles > external allies > struggle > new normal

— then it doesn’t make sense, even if the outcome is acceptable. And if it doesn’t make sense, we have to put mental effort into making it fit a narrative structure, which is taxing. It also sets us up for disappointment if we ever return to that experience, and find it veering from the arc yet again. It’s hard to get comfortable with things that don’t make sense, and a lot of the world still doesn’t make sense.

The good news is that there’s a story for every user experience. Part of the genius of classical narrative structure is that it’s incredibly flexible within its broad constraints. Just think of the variety of stories in the world. We’ve been telling them for millennia, and we’re not going to run out any time soon. Buying a birthday present for your cousin is a struggle. The distance between you and the airport is an obstacle. Your subscription, your credit card, your Instagram followers, your words and images: they’re all allies of some sort.

What’s imperative upon us as designers is to recognize these elements, and accept the challenge of fitting them to a narrative so the user doesn’t have to. That’s our struggle, and we have an incredible array of allies on hand to help us. All that’s missing, really, is the motive.

Protagonist Studio

Good story makes good strategy.