An evolutionary basis for storytelling

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A recent article by Helen Briggs of the BBC tells how the human love affair with stories might have an evolutionary basis: an almost cathartic effect that releases ‘natural painkillers’ in the form of endorphins and fosters social bonding. According to the article:

The human fascination with story telling was forged in ancient times when we began to live in hunter gatherer communities, said Prof Robin Dunbar, who led the research [into why we’re attracted to dramatic, and even upsetting, narratives such as tear-jerking films].

“Fiction is widely studied by humanities academics as it is an important feature of human society, common to all cultures,” said Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at Oxford University.

“There are good social reasons: folklore enables us to pass on wisdom or ingrain community values, bringing us together. While that is important, it does not fully explain why we are willing to return again and again to be entertained.”

He thinks our affinity for emotive fiction may have evolved in the context of cohesion of social groups, as the endorphin effect has also been seen in comedy, singing and dancing.

“This is not to say that this one chemical effect alone is the only reason for dramatic fiction – there are other aspects of human psychology at work – but we believe that it is an important reason for our enjoyment of fiction,” he added.

—db

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