We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” It’s Joan Didion’s most famous line, the opening sentence of her essay, “The White Album,” a congeries of images of California in the 1960s, peopled with young brothers who murdered a silent film star, the Doors, Black Panthers, and the Manson family. The scenes are injected with vertigo and nausea, fused into a hyperreal painting. “We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices,” Didion wrote. “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”
Neuroscience has immortalized Didion’s observation in the language of biology. In his article, “Our Brains Tell Stories So We Can Live,” a play on Didion’s line, featured in this month’s issue of Nautilus, neurologist Robert A. Burton explains how evolution shaped our brains to produce narratives to guide us through a chaotic world. “We are hardwired to need stories,” Burton explains. He goes on to reveal both the rewards and dangers of our storytelling brains, notably when it comes to science. “We can get our dopamine reward, and walk away with a story in hand, before science has finished testing it,” he writes. “This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the brain, hungry for its pattern-matching dopamine reward, overlooks contradictory or conflicting information whenever possible.” Consider Burton’s story a cautionary tale.
The evolutionary nature of storytelling figures throughout this month’s issue. In “The Storytelling Computer,” M.R. O’Connor offers the wonderful insight that we make our paths through the world by fixing images of the physical landscape in our minds. She explains that, yes, neuroscientists can explain this in terms of special place neurons, but long before them, Native Americans, in particular, knew the way through the world was marked by nature’s features. O’Connor then meets, in an act of serendipity, computer scientist Patrick Henry Winston, who tells her that if artificial intelligence is ever going to rise to being even a simulacrum of the human brain, it’s going to need to do that most quintessential human thing, tell stories.
But this issue isn’t just about the innate nature of storytelling. It’s also about the beautiful power of stories themselves. One marvelous and unplanned theme that arises is the idea that animals have their own stories. Celebrated neuroscientist Joseph Ledoux dissects the anatomy of human anthropomorphism. When it comes to emotions and feelings, Ledoux informs us what the human brain and the animal brain share in common, and, more importantly and perhaps controversially, what they don’t have in common. On the lighter but no less perspicacious side, fiction writer Ted Chiang brings us a short story told from the point of view of a parrot, asking why humans are so hellbent on contacting extraterrestrials: “We’re a nonhuman species capable of communicating with them. Aren’t we exactly what humans are looking for?”
Pull up a chair. It’s Nautilus story hour.
Image credit: Karen Arnold / PixabayRead the Issue