A Global Health Crisis and the Storytelling Brain

The brain may have evolved for entertainment.

Posted Mar 14, 2020

Many people think, quite reasonably, that our big brains evolved with rational thought to solve geographical problems, such as building shelters, remembering where the berries grew from year to year, and trapping animals for food. Others think, less reasonably but still sensibly, that our brains are evolving toward logic and reason, but they are just not there yet, as if science is the endpoint of humanity’s evolution (even though it is the science of evolution that teaches us that evolution doesn’t have a direction).

Geoffrey Miller, in The Mating Mind, made the interesting case that our big brains evolved not primarily for survival advantages but to appeal to the opposite sex. Bigger brains meant better storytelling, which is an asset in competitive mating. The bigger the listener’s brain, the better the story had to be to be appealing. Rational plot lines are more engaging than the irrational jumping around you see in children’s storytelling. Science and probability theory, which would be so useful in combatting the coronavirus, take a back seat in our brains’ relative strengths to our evolved expertise in creating horror stories and hero narratives. The former tell us how we should behave, and the latter leave us terrified and hoping some doctor at the CDC will save us. It is not a bug but a feature in our brain development that turns us to anxiety and fantasies of rescue, because our brains evolved to produce matinee serials, not documentaries.

An evolutionary arms race occurs when one genetic development occurs that changes the environment in which another gene is expressed in a way that makes the original genetic development insufficient. A good example is the arms race between the speed of cheetahs and the speed of gazelles. There’s no way that the fastest animal alive would be found somewhere without a nearly equally fast predator or prey. Miller’s theory accounts for the speed of the development of the brain. If brain size (or really, complexity) was a response to a statically complicated geographical environment, then it’s hard to see why its evolution would be so swift. But if it was a response to a speedily developing brain complexity in the opposite sex, then it makes more sense that it would evolve quickly.

The brain is thus like the peacock’s tail, which evolved for its appeal to peahens, who presumably evolved increasingly discriminatory preferences for tails. But with brains, both sexes put selection pressures on each other to tell better stories. The brain being built for storytelling and story-appreciating rather than for rational thought or for remembering solutions to geographical problems explains a lot of our difficulties with rational thought and memory and turns our cognitive biases on their heads from geographical pathologies to reproductive strategies. Our poor memories, in this view, are not deficits in brain functioning any more than creative license in rewriting history is a deficit of Shakespeare’s in his Richard III or Henry V. It’s not a problem reproductively that we sacrifice accuracy for the story we are telling ourselves; the story is all. Indeed, when Nietzsche noted the extent of cognitive bias in our perceptions, he described us as being more artists than we sometimes imagine, rather than as our being defective robots.

Another area that is clarified by the idea that our brains evolved for storytelling and story appreciation rather than for truth is our difficulty distinguishing when someone is lying to us. (This is the topic of Malcom Gladwell’s new book.) Assuming people are telling the truth to us does seem to act as a kind of social glue, but even more importantly (if the brain is built for storytelling), good storytelling is facilitated and appreciated by what Wordsworth called “the suspension of disbelief.” We are not animals built for truth-seeking but for face-saving and entertaining. To deploy critical thinking during a story is like interrupting a comedian and asking whether she is really married when she is trying to tell a joke about husbands. Also, of course, we were built to live in small groups, and in a social sphere of 90 people, you can just all agree on whom to take with a grain of salt when they are making claims about reality. Learning to read strangers was largely irrelevant.

This whole truth-seeking enterprise called science has been a remarkable success, responsible for living past forty in large measure, and for creating the kind of intellectual environment that gave rise to Netflix (which, I note, capitalizes on how our brains are built to appreciate stories). But science is an unexpected benefit of big brains, not their purpose. Brains were not built to do math any more than backs were built to sit all day at a computer or arms were built for throwing sliders. You can sit or throw baseballs until you injure yourself, but you can only forego storytelling for about a day before you fall asleep and start dreaming. Dreaming is the primary outlet of the storytelling brain, like having your own blog every night.

In a world of stories, it’s kind of clunky to ask if the story is “true.” Asking if the soothsayer really said that to Caesar is as off-topic as asking if Romeo really said that to Juliet. Vetting people’s speech for truthfulness often misses the point. The point of most speech is to create and maintain a social facade, to entertain, to induce emotional effects, and to forge alliances. Journalistic accuracy is rarely the point. So don’t be surprised when horror narratives and hero-worship supplant our rational responses to the coronavirus; it’s what we were built to do.