Why our brains love stories

There are a kazillion articles online about the power of story. Whole books on the topic. There’s less written about WHY stories are so powerful.

Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, seems to have the answer. In his book Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, he walks the reader through a vast amount of scientific research into human cognition and how it affects our choices and behaviours (here’s a brief overview of the key ideas). As the title hints, he describes humans as having two modes of thinking: fast and slow. The two modes perform different functions:

Fast thinking is what we call gut reactions, or intuition. It’s the automated control system, and its what we do automatically. It generates impressions.

Slow thinking is the analytic, problem-solving mode. It can handle more complex things, and can be more accurate in its conclusions.

We tend to identify with slow thinking, but we use fast thinking all the time we’re awake, whereas slow thinking is kind of on stand-by until it’s assigned a task by the fast thinking system. The fast thinking system is constantly feeding information into the slow thinking system—telling it stories it has created from the data coming in from the senses.

William Hill’s 1915 illusion

We can see this in action when looking at optical illusions, like the one on the left. We think of it as our eyes playing tricks, but what’s really happening is our fast thinking system is coming up with a plausible story about what it’s seeing. Do you see the old lady, or the young woman? Once you’ve seen one, it can be hard to see the other: once the fast thinking system has chosen the story, it sticks with it.

Kahneman demonstrated that our brains are doing this ALL THE TIME. This is the source of cognitive bias, and most of the time its completely invisible to us. It’s that automatic.

The fast thinking system is essential to survival. We need to be able to recognise patterns and make decisions to protect ourselves from threats. The trouble is, because its invisible, our slow thinking brain can be duped into making bad decisions because its been duped into believing false stories by the fast brain.

This is why the fake news phenomenon is so destructive: as our world gets more complex, we are forced to rely on the stories we are told by our leaders and the news media to make sense of things. When they knowingly and deliberately mislead us, they make it almost impossible for our slow thinking system to come to accurate conclusions. All the more so when they make us fearful: our primitive brain only wants simple stories: are you friend or foe? are you predator or prey?

The more powerful a person is, the more likely they are to believe their own biases. A vain and arrogant narcissist is the absolute worst person to be a leader…and yet we seem to have a plague of them. Douglas Adams was spot on:

“One of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them.
To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.”
(Restaurant at the End of the Universe)

Reading fiction has been demonstrated to help us develop empathy, and there is evidence that permanent changes in perspective can be brought about through reading. To me, this means writers have a responsibility to our readers to tell stories that promote connection and understanding, to avoid stereotyping and prejudicial tropes. As readers, we need to be conscious of who we trust to fill our heads with ideas, and what ideas we pursue.

As they say about databases: garbage in; garbage out.

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