The Story Drive

No preamble this week–I’m diving right in!

Two weeks ago, I wrote about storytelling and some of the brain science behind it, and that led me to talk a bit about how story connects us as human beings. That was all sort of the science side of story–the explanation of what story does in our brains and bodies to produce the results it produces.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last few weeks, and I want to get more into the philosophy and maybe even slightly Jesus-y side of storytelling. I don’t know if this will be useful or even interesting to anyone but me, but it’s my blog, and I need to process it all, so… there you go.

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The Background

I think it’s pretty well-established at this point that our brains respond to stories in completely different ways than they respond to data or facts. (See Karen Eber’s TED Talk.) Let’s start with that as a baseline. My question this week is “Why?”

Why are we hard-wired to respond to story this way?

What is it that we get from stories that we don’t get from other forms of information?

Why is something so subjective and ephemeral so necessary to survival as a species?

Stories predate written language by thousands of years. The earliest cave paintings go back up to 64,000 years ago; written language only appeared around 5,000 years ago. Linguists believe there was a proto-human language spoken in East Africa around 50,000 years ago, but if this date is accurate, some cave paintings still predate even the earliest language. At a minimum, we can gather that they appeared around the same time.

So if cave paintings are the earliest form of recorded communication, it seems logical to assume that they fed something in the early human psyche–something that must have been hard-wired into us from the very beginning.

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It’s all of these little bits of detail that make me believe that artistic expression must be one of the very first things we need after we take care of food, clothing, and shelter. That isn’t a particularly new idea. My question, again, is “why?” Why is it so basic?

I have a few ideas…

Emotional Expression

One of the most profound things any of my children ever said to me came from my youngest–the artist. I was in the car alone with her in 2016, the year everything fell apart, and we were talking about how to express everything that was going on around us. She was in fifth grade at that point. I think I said something about processing everything through writing, even if I never shared it with anyone. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “Art is where we put our feelings.”

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Is it so hard to believe that an early human on the plains of Africa would need to express human emotion through artistic expression? In a culture where language may not have been highly developed, what other tools would that human have? Natural dyes, sticks, a flat surface would be enough to express something raw and untamed, wouldn’t it?

As humans, there are moments when our emotions bubble up and spill over, and we can’t always put those emotions into clinical terms. We may not even be able to talk them through or share them with another human. We need to put them somewhere. Art is always available.

Human Connection

If the pandemic era has taught me anything, it’s that I may be immune to some coronaviruses (to my knowledge, I’ve never contracted COVID-19; if I have, it was so mild that it was never more than a blip on my overall health), but I am not immune to the need for human connection.

And I tried so hard to remain a misanthropic hermit…

Don’t get me wrong. I still have a pretty powerful Ouiser Boudreaux vibe around me.

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But here’s the thing…

Over the last several years, I’ve gradually become a lot more isolated. There are a lot of reasons for that–not just government-enforced isolation, either. The kids grew up, got driver’s licenses, and moved out and away (or, in one case, stayed put while we moved), which is a natural and normal thing. As a result, I left behind kid-related volunteer work, and I had fewer opportunities to interact with other parents. And then we moved, and for a host of reasons, I have not really found my tribe in this town.

So when I do meet new people, what do I do? I fall back on telling stories pretty quickly.

And I bet you do, too.

I think we all do. I think it’s an instinct. We understand at a foundational, lizard-brain level that stories connect us.

That early cave dweller who drew cows in 2D may have met a new person and shown that painting, and that new person may have gestured that he, too, had seen those cows. They could have bonded over the dangers inherent in hunting those cows or displayed their clothing crafted from a skin. All of a sudden, this new connection isn’t an enemy to fight–he’s a friend to help you hunt more cows.

I also think stories are a form of reproduction. We recreate experiences, explain our surroundings, and express our feelings out of a creative drive. And in so doing, we generate new connections with other humans.

Metaphysical Rules

I have a theory that the universe was created with certain foundational rules that we can’t really hack or avoid without considerable effort. We see some of these in a force like gravity–the only way to escape it, really, is by playing by the rules of the force itself. You have to create an opposite force that’s strong enough to push against gravity to get you to a place where there’s less gravity, and even then, you have to still play within the rules. Gravity is a great equalizer. It works for everyone–even entire galaxies.

My theory extends to the unseen world. For instance, I believe there’s something about hard work that generates some level of reward somewhere in realms we don’t see right away. My own example is that every time I’ve focused on marketing my writing business, I end up with leads that come from unexpected sources. I’ll be focused on marketing in one area, and something completely different from a direction I wasn’t even looking at pops up and turns into a project.

I think there are probably many universal forces like this that are sort of buried in our souls. I won’t even say our psyches or brains or bodies, because I think these things exist outside of us to exert pressure or respond to our pressure.

I know.

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But… I think this is where story comes in.

This idea is sort of in line with the quote I shared last week from Dr. Michelle Thaller. Here it is again, for your reference:

The human mind is all about connections. A single neuron, thought or fact makes no sense; it’s the links and underlying maps we create that allow us to parse reality…. What we think of as a universe extending into space and time is just how our limited brains perceive an underlying structure of pure connection.

I wonder if there are story neurons out there in the universe that need to find a vehicle to create connection. Is there a force we can’t see–something like gravity–that drives storytelling behind the scenes? Some research suggests that our heartbeats will sync to the teller of a story when we’re listening attentively. What if this phenomenon is more than just a results of brain activity and hormonal fluctuation? What if story neurons are drawing connections?

Hey, it’s as believable as a fairy that sits on my shoulder whispering stories to me

The Ultimate Story

All of this speculation brings me to my biggest–and possibly most controversial, for some readers–theory about why we have this story drive.

I believe that our need for stories has its roots in the ultimate story–the one contained in the Bible. This is the story of how God created a world for human beings, but because we mess everything up, it became a fallen, imperfect, cursed place. So God, loving us the way he does, decided to send redemption in the form of a Man who would die and rise again.

A lot of you may not be with me any longer right now, and that’s fine. But I would suggest that, even if you don’t believe in that part, just reading the Bible as a story does bear out at least part of my theory.

For hundreds of years leading up to the birth of Christ, the Jewish people told a very long story or series of stories through their own historical records, poetry, and prophecies about a coming Messiah. As a Christian, I look back and see the story cycles of the Old Testament as constantly pointing to the New Testament and the New Covenant with Christ.

What if all of our stories are part of that ultimate story? What if the reason we need story so much–the reason it’s a foundational, universal force–is because every story is pointing back to that Ultimate Story?

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I admit–I could be entirely off-base with all of these ideas and theories. I am not a philosopher, theologian, linguist, or literary expert. I’m just a writer with a pretty broad base of general knowledge who’s trying to justify and explain her compulsion to create stories in a way that makes her less of a weirdo.

Not sure I succeeded, but there you have it.

This was really long, and if you stuck with me this far, God bless you. I mean that.

Next week, I’m getting back to my Ten Rules series with Rule #6: Be Gritty.

Have a good week, y’all!

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