Why we tell stories

I have a terrible habit of not completing books that I begin reading. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari is one of them. I will finish it sometime, and when I do, I might be able to tell a better story. But for now, this is where the I am at.

Sitting through many meetings and discussions around the academic planning, I kept thinking that this book is such an important resource for all subjects taught in school. It gives a wonderful insight into how we have evolved as a species. Understanding this history can perhaps make us self-critical about our own life-choices and compassionate towards the planet, both of which are urgent matters today, even more so because we are working with education.

 

While speaking about cognitive revolution, the author of Sapiens goes on to explain that the one thing that separates the human species from all other living creatures is our ability to use stories and myths as a unifier for large-scale collaboration. If we had communicated only through limited gossip relying solely on personal contact, it is believed that the human species could not have formed groups larger than 150 people. In order to group in much larger numbers, something greater than personal contact and limited communication was needed. Our ability to imagine, mythologise and tell stories has been a powerful factor in creating imagined realities and belief systems that have characterised great civilisations and empires. This is what allowed the species to spread its colonies and take over territories of many other living species, sometimes even wiping out a few. In addition to this, the development of our brains have resulted in our ability to invent ideas and create tools to adapt to climates ranging from the Arctic to the tropics; scale mountains and sail the seas. We developed complex language skills for communicating ideas as the communities expanded, and further spread and built upon their imagined realities and myths.

The magic of a story is in its entrapment. For millennia now, stories have fed us and ensured our survival, while remaining intangible. In most other species, behavioural changes wait for changes in DNA (which happens over longer periods of time) but with humans, one story can impact behavioral changes far more drastically. Our children yearn for stories and our cultures thrive on a preoccupation with narratives. We are subconsciously tuned to myth-making because it is indeed in our DNA. When empirical evidence is missing, those gaps get filled with stories. Contentions regarding our understanding of history are often pitched on conflicting narratives. We are left with an intricately woven tapestry, threadbare in parts, with our minds full of imagined realities for a disconnected future.

The only thing we truly find solace in, is a good story. It has not only shaped our existence, but also has the power to change the way we live and treat the world. So, what is the story we can tell?


Malavika Rajanarayan who wrote this piece for Bayalu, is a Fellow at Azim Premji Foundation, Yadgir, Karnataka.

You may read the Kannada version of this article here.

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