“A Global Health Crisis and the Storytelling Brain
The brain may have evolved for entertainment.
Michael Karson, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Denver.
The brain is thus like the peacock’s tail, which evolved for its appeal to peahens, who presumably evolved increasingly discriminatory preferences for tails. But with brains, both sexes put selection pressures on each other to tell better stories. The brain being built for storytelling and story-appreciating rather than for rational thought or for remembering solutions to geographical problems explains a lot of our difficulties with rational thought and memory and turns our cognitive biases on their heads from geographical pathologies to reproductive strategies. Our poor memories, in this view, are not deficits in brain functioning any more than creative license in rewriting history is a deficit of Shakespeare’s in his Richard III or Henry V. It’s not a problem reproductively that we sacrifice accuracy for the story we are telling ourselves; the story is all.
We are not animals built for truth-seeking but for face-saving and entertaining. To deploy critical thinking during a story is like interrupting a comedian and asking whether she is really married when she is trying to tell a joke about husbands. Also, of course, we were built to live in small groups, and in a social sphere of 90 people, you can just all agree on whom to take with a grain of salt when they are making claims about reality. Learning to read strangers was largely irrelevant.
This whole truth-seeking enterprise called science has been a remarkable success, responsible for living past forty in large measure, and for creating the kind of intellectual environment that gave rise to Netflix (which, I note, capitalizes on how our brains are built to appreciate stories). But science is an unexpected benefit of big brains, not their purpose. Brains were not built to do math any more than backs were built to sit all day at a computer or arms were built for throwing sliders. You can sit or throw baseballs until you injure yourself, but you can only forego storytelling for about a day before you fall asleep and start dreaming. Dreaming is the primary outlet of the storytelling brain, like having your own blog every night.”