We've been telling stories for centuries, long before we could even write them down, and stories have been crucial to our evolution.
"Story is what enabled us to imagine what might happen in the future, and so prepare for it — a feat no other species can lay claim to," writes Lisa Cron in "Wired for Story."
In fact, our brains are so adept at detecting story patterns that we often see them where they don't even exist, as evidenced by a 1944 study at Smith College.
Study participants were shown a short film in which two triangles and a circle moved across a screen that also contained a motionless rectangle. When asked what they saw, all but one of the participants reported a narrative with a "worried" circle and two fighting triangles, one that was an "innocent young thing" and another that was "blinded by rage and frustration."
Only one person saw the film for what it actually was: a few polygons moving around a screen.
The evolution of story
Anthropologists tell us that storytelling is a feature of every known culture, but what is it about stories that make them so universal?
To put it simply, they've kept us alive.
"Story originated as a method of bringing us together to share specific information that might be lifesaving," Cron writes, citing a humorous example of one Neanderthal warning another not to eat certain berries by sharing the tragic story of what happened to the last guy who ate them.
Because a story involves both data and emotions, it's more engaging — and therefore more memorable — than simply telling someone, "Those berries are poisonous."
In fact, stories are remembered up to 22 times more than facts alone, according to Jennifer Aaker, a marketing professor at Stanford's Graduate School of Business.
If you think telling stories about other people to convey information sounds a lot like gossip, you'd be correct. Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar even argues that storytelling has its origins in gossip, a social practice that continues today.
Gossip actually accounts for 65 percent of all human conversations in public places, regardless of age or gender, according to Dunbar's research, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Sharing stories — even gossip — can help us learn and make sense of the world.
This is your brain on story
The brain processes imagined experiences — whether it's that of a young boy attending wizarding school or a woman hiking the Pacific Coast Trail — as real experiences.
"Stories create genuine emotions, presence (the sense of being somewhere), and behavioral responses" writes psychologist Pamela B. Rutledge.
In fact, reading a story causes heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex. The neurons in this region are associated with tricking the mind into thinking the body is doing something it’s not, a phenomenon known as grounded cognition.
"The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist," neuroscientist Gregory Berns, lead author of the Emory University study said. "We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else's shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically."
Stories also affect our minds in other ways.
Washington and Lee psychology researcher Dan Johnson found that reading fiction makes us more empathetic, and the more absorbed by a story we are, the more empathetic we'll be.
"It really seemed to be a lot about the imagery and visualizing the face of the main character and the events they experienced," he said. "Those who experienced more inherent imagery were more likely to develop empathy for the characters and be more helpful."
Cohn believes that stories' ability to evolve with us, to engage us and to connect us with others speaks to something much deeper than simply a desire to be entertained.
"Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience reveal that our brain is hardwired to respond to story," she says. "The pleasure we derive from a tale well-told is nature's way of seducing us into paying attention to it."