Tell Me a Story


I’ve been teaching one of my classes this semester about the power of stories in human life. We are reading a collection of short stories and analyzing them to figure out what makes a good story, what makes a story “work,” and just what it is that compels humans to tell stories. In my research for the class, I’ve found some interesting things about the effect of stories on our brains. For example, studies have shown that when we read language that appeals to our senses, it’s not just the part of our brain that processes language that responds, but also the parts of our brain that process the various physical elements in the description. In other words, to read is, in a sense, to experience, at least as far as our brains are concerned. In a well-known study by Michael Gazzaniga, who pioneered studies on the split brain, Gazzaniga found that the left hemisphere of the brain is responsible for interpreting information and making it fit into a narrative even where no narrative exists:

In one of Gazzaniga’s favourite examples, he flashed the word ‘smile’ to a patient’s right hemisphere and the word ‘face’ to the left hemisphere, and asked the patient to draw what he’d seen. “His right hand drew a smiling face,” Gazzaniga recalled. “’Why did you do that?’ I asked. He said, ‘What do you want, a sad face? Who wants a sad face around?’.” The left-brain interpreter, Gazzaniga says, is what everyone uses to seek explanations for events, triage the barrage of incoming information and construct narratives that help to make sense of the world. (
The big question, of course, is still why the human brain gets so much stimulus from stories and is, itself, such a story-telling machine. One theory is that story-telling is evolutionarily helpful; by allowing the brain to “experience” a difficult situation without actually having to encounter physical harm, stories help humans to avoid harmful experiences and survive. This explanation makes sense.
As a Christian, the story that filters my view of this phenomenon is, of course, the Christian story — specifically that the God who chose to become human (The Word made flesh) also chose to speak to his people through stories. Jesus spoke in parables and figures of speech, and God made man in His image as a storyteller. We are designed for stories, and we live in them and through them, as we make decisions based on the stories that shape our lives.
Now we can view these stories as mere neurological and social constructs (see this previous TTC entry for more info. on what a “social construct” is) that enable physical and cultural survival without any link to Truth or Reality.
We can view our brain’s propensity for story-telling as a sign that The Story — the big one — about a glorious creation, a horrifying fall, a bloody redemption, and a triumphant restoration — is True. Maybe God made us for story so that we could see the big Story that is playing out all around as, through Christ, all that is broken is made new. Maybe everything is always-already story not because truth is unknowable, but because The Truth is in the story.