How Story and the Brain Evolved
One thing that I know we all agree on, out there too, I bet, and you guys, I see you nodding, we all agree about how much we love stories, right. We all love stories, nobody's gonna argue with that. We've loved stories since we were three years old, and no one had to teach us how. We love story. In fact, there has never been a society on earth that didn't have storytelling. Story is a human universal, which should have clued us into the fact that there is a bit more to it than just a great way to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon. The question is why don't we know about story's super power? And the answer is, ironically, because we love stories so much. Because we love story so much, because story feels so good, we tend to think of story as entertainment, hear it all the time, it's entertainment. Think about it in your own lives. When you come home after work or after school, and you've done real things in the real world that have real consequences, what's the first thing you do, you kn...
ow, after getting a snack, of course? You turn on the TV or you open a book or you start watching a movie because you wanna leave the real world behind and lose yourself in a world of make-believe. You wanna, like, recharge your batteries and just kick back and veg out. And that's the irony. Because we love story so much, because we think of it as entertainment, it becomes marginalized, and, therefore, optional. It's like, yeah, yeah, yeah, sure, life would be far drabber without stories, but, you know, it's not like it would make any real difference or anything, 'cause it's not like story serves any real purpose other than, you know, just enjoyment. And that couldn't be further from the truth. Story is how we got here. Story was more crucial than our much-touted and beloved opposable thumbs, because, because all opposable thumbs do is allow us to hang on. It is story that tells us what to hang on to. Just think of story as the world's first virtual reality, minus the geeky visor, because without story, all we'd have is the now. And I don't care what Eckhart Tolle says. If we lived in the now all the time, not only would we have forgotten any lesson we learned in the past, but if we lived in the now all the time, we wouldn't even know there was a tomorrow, let alone be able to plan for the dangers and delights that are waiting for us there. It was story that allowed us to step out of the present so we could envision the future and plan for the thing that for time immemorial has scared us more than anything. And you know what that is? The unknown, the unexpected, because ask yourselves, how often does what you expect to have happen actually happen? And on those rare instances when it does, how often does it feel like what you thought it would? Hardly ever. Stories are simulations that allow us, from the safety of our own armchair, to try on difficult situations that we haven't yet had to face. And when I say difficult situations, I mean anything that would make us have to change, because all change is hard. Good change is as hard as bad change, in fact, sometimes good change is harder 'cause we don't expect it to be hard so it comes as a real surprise. It is, it is as hard to leave home to get married as it is to leave home to get divorced. In fact, sometimes it's easier to leave home to get divorced. So stories allow us, from the safety of our own armchair, to envision those things that we haven't yet had to deal with, to think, what would that be like, and what would I need to learn in order to survive, like I see those berries over there, they're red by the way, and I am starving, and did I mention this was Stone Age so I can't go to the 7-Eleven, buy a frozen burrito, take it home and nuke it? But I heard the story about the neanderthal next door who chowed down on a couple of buckets of those berries, and the way they said she was writhing in the ground and foaming at the mouth before she died, I mean she died, that should've been enough, but it also sounded really painful. So I think I'll forego those berries and make do with a couple of cold still beetles, and live to see the dawn. In other words, story was so crucial, it was so seminal to our survival that nature, our biology, saw to it, that it was enjoyable, so I pay attention and not eat the red berries. In other words, stories feel good for the same reason food tastes good and sex feels good, because without it, we couldn't survive. And that great feeling you get when you're lost in a story, it's not arbitrary, it's not ephemeral, it's not pleasure for pleasure's sake, it's not love of language, whatever that means, in fact, it isn't even the point. It's actually the biological lure, the hook that paralyzes us so that we can leave reality behind and get lost in the world of the story. It's actually a surge of the neurotransmitter dopamine. That is your brain's way of rewarding you. And that is immediately, it's immediately triggered by the intense curiosity that an effective story will always engender. It is your brain's way of rewarding you for following that story to the end because you just might learn something that you need to know, 'cause we come to every story asking one question in what's known as our cognitive unconscious. Now, one time out, cognitive unconscious, what is that exactly? Well, as you probably know, we have very big brains, but most of the decisions that we make during the day, like 99.9% of them, are made in your cognitive unconscious. It knows what to do without you even having to think about it. It doesn't come up to conscious level, and it sort of needs to because they say that we make, you ready for this, 35,000 decisions a day, and of those 35,000 decisions, we're only aware, consciously, of about 70 of them. So your cognitive unconscious makes most of the decisions. Your thinking brain is there for things that your, that your cognitive unconscious does not know the answer to. And your thinking brain is very, very slow, and it uses a lot of energy. In fact, they say the brain is what, it's 2% of our body weight, and yet it uses 20% of our energy. In fact, they say that thinking hard actually burns calories, not enough calories, clearly, but it actually burns calories. So this is how it works. Let me just give you an example. Imagine, you know, you're on, you're on, whatever you have the equivalent of a freeway. I'm from Los Angeles, so we have the 405. So imagine you're driving on the freeway, and ahead you see a sea of red, and your conscious brain had to figure out what to do. It would go, hmm, I see that sea of red. Upon going back into my memory banks, as I seem to recall, those are taillights. And let me just ponder this a bit and go back and ruffle through a little bit more info back in my memory banks, that means that those cars are slowing down. No, upon further empirical observation, they're actually going pretty fast. And doing a bit more research on my part, I'm going pretty fast, so I guess I better put my foot on the, and by that time, you'd be impaled in the backseat of the car in front of you. But that's not the way it happens. Watch, if the next time you are in that situation, and you find that your foot is reaching for the brake before your conscious brain has figured out what the heck is going on, that's your cognitive unconscious. So we come to every story with one question hardwired in our cognitive unconscious. What am I going to learn here that will help me make it through the night? What am I going to learn that will help me survive in the physical world, like don't eat the red berries, or, much more importantly for, oh I don't know, about the past 150,000 years, what am I going to learn that will help me survive in the social world? And when I say social world, I do not mean the world of dating, although that's, that's included, I mean the world of literally other people, what makes people tick. And the reason, just, let's stick with the brain for one more sec, the reason that that is what stories are mostly about goes back to that, that growth spurt the brain had about 150,000 years ago. It was the last big growth spurt that our brain has had. And for a long time, scientists believed that the reason for that growth was, was because that's when we got the ability to think rationally, analytic thinking was woven into our brains there, and that's true. But what evolutionary biologists now believe is that that wasn't the reason for that growth spurt. The reason for that growth spurt was because by that time, in admittedly a very rudimentary way, we had learned how to master the physical world. We weren't gonna eat the red berries, usually, and I would say there are probably still some who walk among us who still would eat those berries, but most of us weren't gonna eat the berries. If we saw a cliff, we knew better then to stop than to keep walking or we would plunge to our deaths. If a lion was coming at us, we knew we better exit stage left, you know, lest we become lunch. And at that time, nature, our biology, realized that if we were gonna do the thing that, for better or worse we've kinda since done, which is take over the world, we needed to learn to do that thing that they've been telling us to do since kindergarten, and that is we needed to learn to work well with others. And at that point, the need to belong to a group became hardwired. We have as much of a biological need to belong to a group as we do for food, air, and water. That is, and that, I'm sorry, food, air, and water. We are all people who need people. There's no such thing, it's so funny when you say someone's a lone wolf. There's no such thing as a lone wolf even in the wolf community. Wolves travel in packs, for goodness' sakes. We're all people who need people. And that, now, is what we turn to story for more than anything. How do you navigate the world of other people, which brings us to the takeaway. The takeaway is, we don't turn to story to escape reality, we turn to story to navigate reality. That's why we're wired for story. That's why we have certain things we expect of every story, because we're looking for inside intel on the best way to navigate this, this mortal coil before we shuffle off, and most of us way too soon. That's what we're looking for. That's why we're wired for story. That is the purpose of story, which, which I'm thinking might make you realize, wow, I have way more power than I thought I did when I sat down here, because every story changes us. We're being affected by stories every minute of every day, whether we know it or not. And most of the time, we don't know it. So that will bring us to, so what are those 13 hardwired expectations? What do we expect of every story? What needs to be there in order to hook us, hold us, and pull us all the way through? What are we looking for in every story?