A uniquely human trait

How humans evolved alongside our stories -- and how storytelling influences us even today.

Reading Time: 8 minutes

One of the very most human parts of the human situation is our love of stories — and storytelling. It was how early humans formed groups and stuck together, and it’s how we learn even today. And it’s not our imagination that stories matter. It’s science!


“Nobody remembers the sermon,” he said

Not long ago, one of my commenters had this to say about stories:

Nobody remembers the sermon, but people (at least the ones not asleep) remember the illustrations. That’s what can trip up a borrowing preacher. We had a visiting preacher one time who confessed at the beginning that he just realized that the sermon he brought to preach was the same one he preached at this congregation a year or two before. And then he said something like, “But people don’t remember sermons anyway, so I guess everything is OK.” But I remembered his illustrations (which were quite creative; that’s why I remembered them). The fact that we don’t remember the scripture exegesis but remember the personal or made-up stories should say something to somebody.

Ozymandias, on Roll to Disbelieve (screenshot)

It didn’t say much to that preacher. But it sure said something to me!

I’ve always had vast respect for stories. Specifically, I admired their power to draw people together and inspire them to work together.

Decoupled cognition: the birth of stories

Humans — Homo sapiens — are not the only animal species on this good dark earth that can communicate through gestures and sounds. Plenty of animals can do that.

We’re not even the only animal species that can fib about stuff that isn’t real. We have seen dogs fake limps and monkeys scream out false warnings about nonexistent predators so they can scoop up the food their friends abandon in fright.

However, we seem — at least so far — to be the only animal species that can imagine stuff that categorically doesn’t exist and isn’t connected to our current actions. In other words, we can decouple our imaginations from reality. In the words of this 2012 paper, this kind of cognition grants us “freedom from immediacy.” Here’s how they describe it working:

In some situations, cognition that is independent of perception can allow actions to be selected other than those prescribed by immediate perceptual input. In others, cognition can be independent of perception and unrelated to the current behavioral goal allowing thoughts to develop that are largely independent of the actions involved in an external task. The default mode network (DMN) has been implicated in both of these kinds of perceptually decoupled thought.

“Escaping the here and now: Evidence for a role of the default mode network in perceptually decoupled thought,” Smallwood et al, 2012. Source.

“Freedom from immediacy” is how people can imagine stuff that isn’t happening right now and isn’t connected at all to what we’re doing at the moment.

A very human imagination

That paper found two different parts of the brain implicated in this kind of decoupled cognition: the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate. Neither of those is particularly unique. Primates share a prefrontal cortex with us, and mammals generally have a posterior cingulate somewhere in their fuzzy heads.

That said, something about these structures allows us to have flights of fancy and imagine nonexistent stuff happening.

This section’s first link tells us that “the auditory parts of the brain” are much better connected to the prefrontal cortex in humans than in primates. As well, that research discovered a specific part of the prefrontal cortex that primates lack: the ventrolateral frontal cortex.

Whatever birthed our ability to tell stories, in other words, it is absent in all other animals.

So non-human primates just can’t do what people do. They can’t daydream about a vacation while they’re on their morning food-gathering run. Nor can they write novels about doomed love affairs or personal revelations.

The birth of community: stories

Because of my past religious experiences, I’m intensely interested in how human beings are wired for belief in nonexistent things. Many of the theories there center around the way that shared religious beliefs may have brought the earliest human communities together. But I think something happened even before that.

Gossip theory” suggests that humans’ ability to create and maintain gossip mills might have helped us to form and grow bigger communities than primates and earlier pre-Homo sapiens species could manage without decoupled cognition.

Not many of us can resist a sly smile and a “Have you heard about…?”

Moving from that to shared religious beliefs doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. As Yuval Noah Harari has written:

Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it. Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari, p. 31.

A good story can bring a whole lot of people together for a very long time to work on very extensive projects.

For a long time, humans’ stories often centered around things that weren’t objectively true. Still, the power of stories to unite people remains strong.

It’s just the kind of stories that’s changing.

The growth of storytelling — and stories

As our storytelling has grown in technique, it’s become capable of bringing together more and more people. Best of all, it does so through the resonance of objective truth.

In their 2013 paper “Politics and the Mind’s Eye,” Michael Bang Petersen and Lene Aaroe have theorized that our ability to empathize and sympathize with the subjects of stories has grown according to our ability to tell stories about those subjects:

[T]he sense of a shared human dignity underlying the politics of indissoluble human rights was influenced by the invention of the novel. The novel allowed people to more vividly imagine the inner life of others and, hence, see the shared humanity through their mind’s eye. [. . .] The cognitive feat of mentally picturing the unseen emerges from the interplay of two distinct processes and is “pieced together out of what others have reported and what we can imagine.”

“Politics in the Mind’s Eye: Imagination as a Link between Social and Political Cognition,” Michael Bang Petersen and Lene Aaroe. American Political Science Review, May 2013. Source.

So the better our storytelling gets and the closer it reaches to the heart of its subjects, the closer people can grow to those they’ve never met or gotten to know.

And that sounds about right.

Entering a golden age of shared stories

When people gained widespread access to the consumer internet, the writing appeared on the wall for oppressive and authoritarian ideologies. Those ideologies rely on a form of tribalism to survive: us-vs-them and black-or-white thinking. People suffering from a tribalistic outlook see outsiders as somehow less than human — and lacking in the good qualities that group members feel belong to themselves alone.

But in truth, more unites humans than divides us. The people seen by tribalistic group members as less-than turn out to be a lot more similar to themselves than they’d ever imagined. In the wake of that understanding floats disquieting discomfort with mistreating their onetime enemies. And in the wake of that, sudden sharp questions can arise about the group being so mistreated.

As just one small example of this phenomenon in action, check out this 2016 paper in Science about how personal contact and sharing our stories can reduce transphobia. In addition to having two-way conversations, the researchers showed subjects videos containing “both sides of the transgender rights argument.” Then, the researchers asked subjects to share their experiences on the topic. They asked subjects “to think about how their personal experiences related to the experiences of transgender people.” This shared storytelling resulted in tangible and lasting changes in subjects’ opinions.

This act of sharing stories can lead to breathtaking changes.

When I finally shared my own story

Julia: I feel like I’m doomed to wander the planet alone forever.

Robbie: Like the Incredible Hulk?

Julia: Yeah. Only I’m not helping people.

Robbie: Aw, that’s not true. I saw you inside.

The Wedding Singer (1998)

For many years I seriously thought I was the first and only person on Earth who’d ever really, truly believed all the correct things with all the correct fervor for all the correct reasons, then discovered it was all untrue and walked away from it. Yep. That was me. The only TRUE CHRISTIAN™ who’d ever figured out that it was all bunkum and left it behind.

Imagine feeling that alone!

Then, one fateful night, I discovered a huge community of people who’d had the same experiences in religion. They called themselves ex-Christians.

Finding them made me feel like I could fly. For many nights to follow, I devoured their deconversion stories, which they called ex-timonies. Over and over again, I realized that we shared a lot of things in common. Their stories resonated with me. I’d felt the same way. I’d done the same things. Heck, I’d even made the same mistakes.

I can’t even write about this experience without feeling tears sparkling in my eyes. Those stories told me I wasn’t alone.

They also told me that I was not, after all, the only person who’d ever deconverted after believing in such-and-these doctrines. Nor was I the only person who’d felt utterly alone for a long time, thinking my story was unique among all others.

Even in my isolation and loneliness, I was not truly alone.

Bible: Who are you gonna believe? Me or your lying eyes?

Not too long after joining that ex-Christian group online, I began blogging about my deconversion. Very quickly, I ran into a whole bunch of Christians who couldn’t believe that I’d ever really been part of their tribe. They constantly attacked me on this basis. They belittled my experiences, sought to silence me, and tried their best to negate me.

Oh, sure, I knew why those Christians had to attack me. After all, their holy book explicitly told them that I had Jesus-ed all wrong:

They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.

1 John 2:19, New International Version (Source)

My inquisitors could never find any flaws in my onetime beliefs. But they always thought they knew that I’d made at least one big mistake along the way, and probably way more than that. They were certainly never short on guesses!

I’d once believed the same stories they did. So, I knew their party lines already. I understood why they attacked me. They had to.

In effect, I was asking them to accept that their holy book was wrong. To borrow from the old quote, who were they going to believe? The Bible? Or someone telling a completely different and contradictory story regarding deconversion?

How true stories can unwork false ones

Years later, those same Christians face a still-spiraling decline of breathtaking proportions and implications. And they now find themselves absolutely surrounded by people bearing the same basic deconversion ex-timony. Either the holy book is wrong, or a huge crowd of people are.

It’s a lot harder to say the huge crowd must be wrong. I mean, Christians still try to say we are. But looking at the ongoing decline of Christians’ cultural dominance, it doesn’t seem like they’re having a lot of luck there.

And a big part of that change has occurred because so many people in that huge crowd are sharing their stories online. It’s no accident that Christians’ cultural dominance began to fade fastest when the internet became an everyday tool for most Americans.

Thanks to the internet, people simply have a much easier time finding ex-Christians and hearing what we have to say.

And from there, people can choose to spend their resources and lifetimes working together on projects that’ll make a difference — without the extra baggage of untrue stories to weigh us down and hold us back.

Our stories matter, and they always have

Shared stories can change worlds. They can alter the hardest of opinions. They can subtly shift tectonic plates’ worth of hardened tribalistic boundaries.

That’s why it’s so important to share our experiences with others. It’s equally as important not to allow the members of tribalistic groups to negate and invalidate those experiences.

As those groups continue to lose cultural power, their members will seek harder than ever to do exactly that. They can’t win agreement through the qualities that actually work to gain voluntary buy-in. So they’ll seek to gain our compliance through way less compassionate means.

And I suspect they’ll have more and more trouble doing that as even their own flocks learn the stories of the people they once mistreated with impunity.

Eons ago, humans began to harness the power of stories.

Now more than ever, those stories can give us wings.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...