Our fiction addiction: why humans need stories

BBC.com   May 3, 2018

Today, the average adult is still thought to spend at least 6% of the waking day engrossed in fictional stories on our various screens.

From an evolutionary point of view, that would be an awful lot of time and energy to expend on pure escapism, but psychologists and literary theorists have now identified many potential benefits to this fiction addiction. One common idea is that storytelling is a form of cognitive play that hones our minds, allowing us to simulate the world around us and imagine different strategies, particularly in social situations.

“It teaches us about other people and it’s a practice in empathy and theory of mind,” says Joseph Carroll at the University of Missouri-St Louis.

Providing some evidence for this theory, brain scans have shown that reading or hearing stories activates various areas of the cortex that are known to be involved in social and emotional processing, and the more people read fiction, the easier they find it to empathize with other people.

The Agta, a Filipino hunter-gatherer population, have long shared stories containing messages of equality between men and women (Credit: Paulo Sayeg)

Various studies have identified cooperation as a core theme in popular narratives across the world. The anthropologist Daniel Smith of University College London recently visited 18 groups of hunter-gatherers of the Philippines. He found nearly 80% of their tales concerned moral decision making and social dilemmas (as opposed to stories about, say, nature). Crucially, this then appeared to translate to their real-life behavior; the groups that appeared to invest the most in storytelling also proved to be the most cooperative during various experimental tasks.


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