SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN MIND
hen Brad Pitt tells Eric Bana in the 2004 ﬁ lm
“there are no pacts between lions and men,” he is not
reciting a clever line from the pen of a Hollywood
screenwriter. He is speaking Achilles’ words in English
as Homer wrote them in Greek more than 2,000 years
ago in the
The tale of the Trojan War has captivated generations of
audiences while evolving from its origins as an oral epic to written versions
and, ﬁ nally, to several ﬁ lm adaptations. The power of this story to transcend
time, language and culture is clear even today, evidenced by
success around the world.
Popular tales do far more than entertain, however. Psychologists and
neuroscientists have recently become fascinated by the human predilection
for storytelling. Why does our brain seem to be wired to enjoy stories? And
how do the emotional and cognitive effects of a narrative inﬂ uence our be-
liefs and real-world decisions?
The answers to these questions seem to be rooted in our history as a
social animal. We tell stories about other people and for other people. Sto-
ries help us to keep tabs on what is happening in our communities. The safe,
imaginary world of a story may be a kind of training ground, where we can
practice interacting with others and learn the customs and rules of society.
And stories have a unique power to persuade and motivate, because they
appeal to our emotions and capacity for empathy.
A Good Yarn
Storytelling is one of the few human traits that are truly universal across
culture and through all of known history. Anthropologists ﬁ nd evidence of
folktales everywhere in ancient cultures, written in Sanskrit, Latin, Greek,
Chinese, Egyptian and Sumerian. People in societies of all types weave nar-
ratives, from oral storytellers in hunter-gatherer tribes to the millions of
writers churning out books, television shows and movies. And when a char-
acteristic behavior shows up in so many different societies, researchers pay
attention: its roots may tell us something about our evolutionary past.
To study storytelling, scientists must ﬁ rst deﬁ ne what constitutes a sto-
ry, and that can prove tricky. Because there are so many diverse forms,
scholars often deﬁ ne story structure, known as narrative, by explaining
what it is not. Exposition contrasts with narrative by being a simple,
straightforward explanation, such as a list of facts or an encyclopedia entry.
Another standard approach deﬁ nes narrative as a series of causally linked
events that unfold over time. A third deﬁ
nition hinges on the typical narra-
tive’s subject matter: the interactions of intentional agents—characters with
minds—who possess various motivations.