But research suggests Borges’ reaction may be the more typical one, a reaction to the way humans naturally process stories. H. Porter Abbott, a professor emeritus in the English department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, calls the preference for linear storytelling “a fundamental operating procedure of the mind.” At around 3 years old, our brains begin to compartmentalize sensory information from the world around us into the components of an ongoing narrative, with each of us at the center. We view our lives as a series of actions, causes, and effects that together form an ongoing story.
And just as living within a story is universal, so too is telling them. Tens of thousands of years before Crowther wrote his review, his prehistoric ancestors were using this process to communicate critical information in a way that would stick (a life-or-death warning about a dangerous predator, for example, is remembered more easily when told in story form). But at some point, prehistoric storytellers began spinning yarns for fun as well as survival—and the tools used to tell stories have remained largely unchanged over the thousands of years since. Abbott says some theorists consider three elements to be the “tripod” of any compelling story: suspense, curiosity, and surprise.
Matt Bezdek, a postdoctoral psychology researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology, studies the neurological impact of those ancient tools in his lab today. “In moments when perceived threats to characters are increasing in a narrative, the audience focuses their attention,” Bezdek says. “There's decreased processing of the visual periphery and increased processing of wherever the narrative is taking place.”
When we watch movies, in other words, we remember more when there’s more at stake. In memory tests, Bezdek says, people remember the events of a film that occur at moments of high suspense better than they do events from the movie’s calmer points.
From epic poems, which often begin in medias res (in the middle of the action) to the works of modernist authors like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, storytellers in intervening millennia have increasingly experimented with non-linear narrative, weaving timelines, perspectives, and scenes and disordering structure.
“Disrupting the presentation of a story and deranging the order in which we are fed information is ancient,” Abbott says. “And it's part of the pleasure of narrative. The question is, when do you go too far?”
A study published in PLOS ONE in December 2015 may offer a clue. In that paper, a team of psychologists showed participants either an intact version of Alfred Hitchcock’s 23-minute film Bang! You’re Dead, or a scrambled version of the same film, with the scenes presented out of order. Both audiences were instructed to lift a hand each time they heard the word “gun” spoken in the film, which centers around a 5-year-old who comes across a real gun and walks around town shooting at people, thinking it’s a toy. The people who viewed the intact version performed significantly worse on the task than those watching the scrambled version.