Feb 22, 2023
Once upon a time there was a king and a bishop...
No, I'm not actually going to tell you a story right now. I just wanted you to notice something: As I started into that, your mind likely shifted into a different mode. You might have started mentally salivating as you anticipated a coming morsel of fiction. That’s because stories are special; they work a kind of magic on us. Humans everywhere—in every known society, starting from a very young age—seem to hunger for narratives. But why? What makes them so palatable and powerful? What do they do to us and for us?
This week I’m joined by two guests who research stories and the human mind. The first is Dr. Raymond Mar, Professor of Psychology at York University in Toronto. His work explores a bunch of different aspects of the psychology of stories, including the relationship between fiction reading and social cognition. My second guest is Dr. Jamie Tehrani, Professor of Anthropology at Durham University in the UK. His research examines the cultural evolution of stories, including questions about why certain stories spread and stick around (sometimes for millennia).
In this conversation, Raymond, Jamie, and I talk about why stories are so powerful. We discuss what makes something a story, and what makes something a good story. We talk about findings that reading fiction may boost our ability to understand other minds. We consider the origins and diversification of folktales by zooming in on one in particular—Little Red Riding Hood. We talk about why stories are easier to remember than essays, and we examine a few of the ingredients that make certain stories especially memorable. Finally, spoiler alert: we also do a bit of good old-fashioned story time.
This is an episode that has been on our wish list forever. Over the past few years there's been so much buzz about stories and storytelling—both in popular media and across different academic disciplines—we thought the topic deserved an extended treatment. And so here you have it: without further ado, my conversation with Jamie Tehrani and Raymond Mar. Enjoy!
A transcript of this episode is available here.
Notes and links
5:00 – Many thinkers have alluded to the function of stories in expanding our experiences. As T.S. Eliot put it, “We read many books, because we cannot know enough people.”
11:30 – A brief popular discussion of the dramatic principle known as ‘Chekhov’s Gun.’
29:00 – See Dr. Mar’s earlier review on the cognitive neuroscience of fiction reading. See also his lab’s recent review of published studies on the question of whether brief exposure to fiction can improve social ability.
34:00 – For a review of work using the ‘Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ task, see here.
37:00 – The study by Robin Dunbar and colleagues on social experience and pain thresholds.
43:30 – See Dr. Tehrani’s study on the phylogeny of Little Red Riding Hood. For anyone unfamiliar, here is a version of the story. For anyone unfamiliar with the Wolf and the Kids, here is a version of the story.
47:00 – On the East Asian story known as the Tiger Grandmother, see here.
55:00 – For discussion of five documented “content biases” and an experimental test of these biases in the context of urban legends, see Dr. Tehrani’s recent study here.
58:00 – The idea of “minimally counter-intuitive” ideas—and their allure—was originally formulated within the cognitive science of religion. For work on “minimally counter-intuitive” elements in the transmission of urban legends, see Dr. Tehrani’s study on “Bloody Mary.”
1:02:00 – See Dr. Mar’s recent meta-analysis comparing stories and essays.
1:07:00 – For discussion of the “auditory cheesecake” idea and the evolutionary origins of music, see our previous episode, The Roots of Rhythm. For ideas about the evolutionary origins of fictions, see Gerrig’s Experiencing Narrative Worlds.
1:10:00 – The study on the role of storytelling among the Agta, a hunter-gatherer group.
1:11:00 – A study finding that scientific abstracts with narrative elements get more citations.
Dr. Tehrani recommends:
Why Horror Seduces, by Mathias Clasen
‘The King and the Abbot’ (aka ‘King John and the Abbot of Canterbury’)
Dr. Mar recommends:
The Moral Laboratory, by Frank Hakemulder
A Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula K. Le Guin
Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI) (https://disi.org), which is made possible by a generous grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to UCLA. It is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with help from Assistant Producer Urte Laukaityte and with creative support from DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster. Our artwork is by Ben Oldroyd (https://www.mayhilldesigns.co.uk/). Our transcripts are created by Sarah Dopierala (https://sarahdopierala.wordpress.com/).
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