Hypothetical question: what if stories were living things? How would they behave? What would they eat? And how would they reproduce?
The answers to this seemingly random line of questioning have lead me to suspect that it’s stories — not genes, memes, or psychology — that are the hidden players pulling the strings behind most human endeavors.
Stories have an immensely powerful effect on people. Money is a story (“If I give you enough of this special paper, you’ll give me that car”), as are religions, marriage, and the reasons for going to war, even when they’re demonstrably untrue. Stories — those we tell each other, as well as those we tell ourselves about ourselves — influence everything we do, and very literally sculpt how we interpret and navigate the world around us.
All of which makes understanding stories, their motives, behavior, and the effects they have upon us, of paramount importance as we make our way through an ever-complexifying universe that’s quickly reaching — and in certain areas breaching — the threshold of our ability to make sense of it all.
But let’s back up for a minute.
What do I even mean by “Story”, and what does observing and cataloging their behaviors, as we would any other living species, tell us about ourselves?
What is a Story?
Noun, “1. A narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader.”Dictionary.com
Stories can be described as strings of information representing a version of reality, ranging from credible and backed by tangible evidence, to fantastical tales that strain the limits of our imaginations. Stories tell us
- “What happened?”
- “What is happening?”
- “What could happen?”
Stories vary wildly in scope and significance, ranging from mundane causality, “If I don’t set my alarm, I’ll be late for work tomorrow”, to operative in our day-to-day lives, “When the red light is on, I can safely walk out in front of that moving car”, to the existential, “Humans are much smarter than all other animals, so we can do what we like with, or to them”.
Humans, in the process of creating and consuming stories, are hard-wired to do something very important with them, however: we imbue stories with Meaning.
Story + Meaning = Emotions
Stories draw their power from the Meaning each individual assigns to them, because our bodies use Meaning as a cue to generate Emotions.
In fact, so powerful is the interaction between Stories and Meaning, that the linear pseudo-equation in the heading of this section doesn’t quite do the mechanics of this process justice — perhaps it’s more accurately represented as
StoryMeaning = Emotions
SM = E
This simplistic equation implies that even slightly increasing the amount of Meaning with which a person imbues a Story amplifies the Emotions generated by orders of magnitude.
For example, compare these two nearly factually identical stories:
- One morning, your toaster happens to brown a patch of your piece of toast in the crude shape of a face.
- One morning, your toaster happens to brown a patch of your piece of toast in the crude shape of Jesus Christ’s face.
The difference between the factual elements of these two stories is tiny, but the Meaning a person attaches to them dramatically alters the intensity of the emotions they generate!
How It Works: Your Internal Cognition Engine
I visualize the process of generating emotional energy from a story much like a piston in a combustion engine.
In a car’s engine, the cylinder intakes and then compresses fuel vapor until it reaches a combustible pressure, at which point it is ignited by the spark plug and the resulting explosive force is harnessed for motion.
Similarly, our internal cognition engine intakes raw information from our environment via our senses, and compresses this data into a Story, which is then imbued with Meaning — good, bad, or indifferent. That spark of Meaning then ignites a burst of Emotional energy, providing the motive force that drives our subsequent reactions.
For example: my coworker and I have held equivalent positions at a company for the same amount of time. One day, they tell me they’ve been offered a promotion and significant pay raise.
After intaking this information, it remains neutral, until I’ve compressed it into a linear story, and assigned a qualitative Meaning to it — and based on any number of contextual factors, that Meaning may trigger a variety of emotions within me, ranging from happiness and surprise, to frustration, or even jealousy. How I behave in response to this new information from my friend all depends on what that story means to me. Hugs, high fives, or hatching secret plots to undermine their success — the full range of my potential reactions all stem from the same information, and are all driven by my resulting emotional state.
Neuroscientist Jill Bolte-Taylor, in her superb TED talk My Stroke of Insight, describes the inner mechanics of human cognition thus:
“Our right hemisphere thinks in pictures… Information, in the form of energy, streams in simultaneously through all of our sensory systems, and then it explodes into an enormous collage of what this present moment looks like… smells like, and tastes like, what it feels like, and what it sounds like.
… Our left hemisphere is a very different place. [It] thinks linearly, and methodically… all about the past, and it’s all about the future. Our left hemisphere is designed to take that enormous collage of the present moment, and start picking out details… It then categorizes and organizes all that information, associates it with everything in the past we’ve ever learned, and projects into the future all of our possibilities.”~ My Stroke of Insight, Jill Bolte Taylor
Our brains are cognitive engines that relentlessly intake sensory data, compress it into Stories, ignite them with Meaning, and output the resulting energy in the form of Emotions that spur us into action.
But combustion engines aren’t living things. So why, then, am I describing stories as though they’re living organisms?
Stories Feed on Emotions to Reproduce
Time and again, Life has shown a tendency to adapt and exploit energy sources wherever they’re available — not even the extreme temperatures and crushing pressure of deep sea thermal vents is enough to deter it from snagging a precarious toehold.
If our emotions are physiological bursts of chemical energy occurring within our bodies, and they heavily influence our perceptions, decision-making, and actions in the world, emotional energy could be harnessed by stories to extend their lifespans, and propagate themselves to new hosts.
Stories that are regarded as meaningful by humans typically spread to more humans. Stories that aren’t as meaningful die with the last human brains that house them. Thus, they have a powerful built-in incentive to generate as much emotional energy as possible, and to spread to as many brains as possible, thus ensuring their continued survival.
In many ways, Nature appears to be fractal, meaning it displays self-similarity across scale: molecules look like neurons, which look like highway maps, which look like social networks, which look like the filaments between galaxies, and so on — it’s difficult to believe these are all coincidences. Through microscopes, binoculars and orbital telescopes, we see the same patterns repeat at smaller and greater scales wherever we look.
This means we could reasonably expect to encounter a similar relationship between Stories, Meaning, and Emotions being played out at a smaller scale in Nature — and it turns out we have, in the symbiotic relationship between ants, and aphids.
“Aphids have a number of predators… The ants protect the aphids on the plant. The aphids then return the favor by providing ants with food in the form of honeydew. The ants milk the aphids by stroking them with their antennae and a drop of honeydew is then released by the aphids from their alimentary canals.”~Ants farming aphids, YouTube
Stories stroke humans to feed on their emotions, much like ants tickle the aphids for their honeydew. Our most stirring and affecting stories tickle us to produce emotion, which feed the stories, and give them the emotional energy they need to propagate across larger groups of humans and leap from one generation to the next, via language.
History is Stories’ Acceleration Towards Immortality
As recently as 25,000 years ago, stories had to make do with simply hopping from one brain to another within small tribes huddled around the campfire. If they were lucky, the humans they resided in encountered other tribes and successfully made the transition. Even luckier, and they generated enough emotional energy to be orally passed on to the next generation of the tribe, ensuring their survival for another 25 to 30 years, on average.
And then writing was invented — and with it history, which enabled stories to propagate independently of chance in-person interactions between the brains that carried them. The printing press, the radio, television, the internet, each were vast accelerations of stories’ spread from one brain to the next.
Within a mere 25,000 years — the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms — stories have learned how to travel around the world at the speed of light, reaching billions of new brains, and continuing to propagate themselves for centuries, if not millennia.
Stories may drive us, but we are the Storytellers
To summarize: Stories can be described as organisms made of information which leverage humans’ ability to assign Meaning in order to cultivate and feed on our emotional energy, in much the same way that ants ‘farm’ aphids for their honeydew.
Stories by themselves are relatively inert until people catalyze them with Meaning — and once imbued with Meaning, they transform into Emotions, which are incredibly powerful motivators of human activity. Different people can imbue the same story with different Meanings, thereby generating different Emotions, at differing intensities.
Now, all of this may sound like people are little more than cognitive cattle, in thrall to the stories’ whims and agenda, however nothing could be further from the truth, for the reality is that each of us are the Meaning-makers!
We control the Meaning bestowed upon each and every story, and therefore we ultimately control the type and magnitude of our emotional reactions to them. We are the gatekeepers of immortality for every story we intake, because we can consciously choose which stories to pass on, and which we take with us to the grave.
Stories may be the gods and demons of this world, but we, the Storytellers, get to choose which ones we invoke for ourselves and our children, and which we banish forever.
So take a moment to ask yourself: which stories do you think deserve to live forever?
“This is what I meant… when I said there are two kinds of people, there are Artists, and there are Marks. Not in a tone of superiority, ‘We’re the Artists and we are on the inside, and so we’re immune… And the Marks, fuck them, they’re all lost souls.’
Every one of us every day is tested to see, ‘Are you an Artist, or are you a Mark?’ In this situation, are you an Artist, or are you a Mark? And you know everybody tumbles both ways several times a day.
… The antidote… in that environment you cannot flee from it, you cannot avoid it, what you have to do is produce, output, output into this ocean of competing memes, output, and subversion and sophistication.
… This is no environment for the credulous, the epistemologically naive, those driven by inner imbalances to adoration and belief.
I really believe salvation through scepticism, hope through scepticism, because it’s too difficult to tell what’s going on.“~Terence McKenna, Artists and Marks