Interestingly, the more absorbed in the story the readers were, the more empathetic they behaved in real life. Johnson tested this by “accidentally” dropping a handful of pens when participants did not think they were being assessed. Those who had previously reported being “highly absorbed” in the story were about twice as likely to help pick up the pens.
A recent study in Science magazine adds more support to the idea that stories can help people understand others, determining that literary fiction “uniquely engages the psychological processes needed to gain access to characters’ subjective experiences.” That’s to say, if you read novels, you can probably read emotions.
But why start telling stories in the first place? Their usefulness in understanding others is one reason, but another theory is that storytelling could be an evolutionary mechanism that helped keep our ancestors alive.
The theory is that if I tell you a story about how to survive, you’ll be more likely to actually survive than if I just give you facts. For instance, if I were to say, “There’s an animal near that tree, so don’t go over there,” it would not be as effective as if I were to tell you, “My cousin was eaten by a malicious, scary creature that lurks around that tree, so don’t go over there.” A narrative works off of both data and emotions, which is significantly more effective in engaging a listener than data alone. In fact, Jennifer Aaker, a professor of marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, says that people remember information when it is weaved into narratives “up to 22 times more than facts alone.”
The value humans place on narrative is made clear in the high esteem given to storytellers. Authors, actors, directors—people who spin narratives for a living are some of the most famous people in the world. Stories are a form of escapism, one that can sometimes make us better people while entertaining, but there seems to be something more at play.
Perhaps the real reason that we tell stories again and again—and endlessly praise our greatest storytellers—is because humans want to be a part of a shared history. What Smith discovered on that 11th tablet is the story of a great flood. On the 11th tablet—or the “deluge tablet”—of Gilgamesh, a character named Uta-napishtim is told by the Sumerian god Enki to abandon his worldly possessions and build a boat. He is told to bring his wife, his family, the craftsmen in his village, baby animals, and foodstuffs. It is almost the same story as Noah’s Ark, as told in both the Book of Genesis and in the Quran’s Suran 71.
Humans have been telling the same stories for millennia. Author Christopher Booker claims there are only seven basic plots, which are repeated over and over in film, in television, and in novels with just slight tweaks. There is the “overcoming the monster” plot (Beowulf, War of the Worlds); “rags to riches” (Cinderella, Jane Eyre); “the quest” (Illiad, The Lord of the Rings); “voyage and return” (Odyssey, Alice in Wonderland); “rebirth” (Sleeping Beauty, A Christmas Carol); “comedy” (ends in marriage); and “tragedy” (ends in death).