You and I, our own fictional creations
The Science of Storytelling: Why Stories Make Us Human, and How to Tell Them Better by Will Storr
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
An event “may flash before our eyes, or brush our skin, or make our ear drums vibrate, but we give it no importance until or unless we see its relevance to other things we believe or remember, that is, to the story we have formed in our head about how the world works and our place in it.”
This is a very good and clear introduction to the science of consciousness: how we become aware of events and how we interpret them. Everything that happens before or around us is meaningless—until or unless we connect it to other events, to give it meaning. And that is to create a story!
Will Storr has devoted much research and written other books on the neuroscience behind narrative, how the brain makes these connections and why it cannot not make them. Here he focuses on how understanding this process can help us not only to understand ourselves but also, as conscious, intentional storytellers, how to create memorable and believable characters.
From our first waking moments as infants, we try to make sense of the world, to control it. “Ultimately,” Storr writes, “we could say the mission of the brain is this: control. Brains have to perceive the physical environment and the people that surround it in order to control them. It’s by learning how to control the world that they get what they want.”
By trial and error, from infancy and especially through adolescence, the brain develops a model of how the world works and how to get what it wants. And that model is just that, a model, greatly simplified from the reality, and is never perfect. The problem is that we tend to believe it explains everything, that its premises are unquestionable. When the brain comes up against contrary evidence — as, say, the Russian soldiers who had been convinced that they would be welcomed as liberators in Ukraine and find that they are not, or King Lear convinced that his power and glory would always be respected, or Donald Trump persuaded that he could never lose an election — it has a dilemma. We may first refuse to believe what we see, or downplay the evidence as a fluke, or invent some new more complicated story to interpret it without abandoning the fundamentals of our model.
“What we want, and the ups and downs or our struggle to get it, is the story of us all.” More concisely, “We’re all fictional characters… We’re the partial, biased, stubborn creations of our own minds.”