Why Do We Tell Stories?

Isabelle Popp

Senior Contributor

Isabelle Popp has written all sorts of things, ranging from astrophysics research articles and math tests to crossword puzzles and poetry. These days she's writing romance. When she's not reading or writing, she's probably knitting or scouring used book stores for vintage gothic romance paperbacks. Originally from New York, she's as surprised as anyone that she lives in Bloomington, Indiana.

Storytelling is so fundamental to the experience of humanity that we might take it for granted. Stories are how we share our inner lives with others, how we persuade, how we educate, how we remember, and so much more. I love that stories are so crucial to us. We even strive to tell them better, whether it’s through craft books for writers or books for business people on how to frame their business as a story.

There are scientists who study the effects of storytelling on the brain, and this much-cited article delves into the phenomenon of neural coupling. Basically, brain activity syncs up between the storyteller and the listener. This convergence in activity suggests that storytelling can help two different people share a similar experience of meaning-making. This is one of those times where the science backs up my own typical experience. If someone’s storytelling really captivates me, I will likely take from it the meaning they intended to impart.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching a lot of Couples Therapy lately, but I’ve been in an introspective place. I’ve been thinking about stories that I’ve told or heard and how they make up the various cells of this storytelling organism. So let’s take a look under the microscope.

Storytelling as Memory

Stories serve a basic function, in that it’s often easier to remember things when they’re in the context of a story. One way to put this to use is to read nonfiction picture books to prepare yourself to reign supreme on Jeopardy!

And here’s a personal story to illustrate. My father was my math and science teacher for all of middle school. However bad you might think that sounds, I promise you it was worse. The thought of my father witnessing my day-to-day fumblings with my crush who sat in front of me is pure mortification. But he did do a memorable little experiment with us all. First, he gave us a long list of random nouns that we had to memorize, in order. I doubt anyone got a perfect score. Then he told us a story, placing each of the words we had to memorize in order. The results were, naturally, much better.

It’s a funny nested thing, this story about how making stories will help us remember. But it really is key to human survival. I only had to hear the story of my dad’s cousin sticking a fork in an electrical outlet one time to know not to mess with electricity. (Don’t worry, he survived.)

Storytelling as Connection

Stories also share memories that build connection and community. This happens at a big scale with folklore. But it happens at smaller scales, too. One of my favorite ways to stay connected to my late grandparents is by sharing stories about them.

If I’m playing cards (or Yahtzee!), the spirit of my grandmother inevitably enters the room. Somehow there’s always someone who is simultaneously very happy to be playing cards but incurably grumpy about their persistent bad hands. That’s when it’s time to share an anecdote about my grandmother at the card table. The curses she would cast on her opponents, her tortured refrains about how unfair the cards always were, her Slavic profanities, her desire to keep playing long after everyone else lost interest. Does my grandmother possess people when I’m playing cards with them? That’s my story. But what is behind my urge to summon her? Why has her story become part of my story?

Storytelling as Understanding

The truth about life is that it’s chaotic. Sure, there are lots of cycles, both grand and minute, that we can observe and name. But a lot of random and inexplicable shit still happens. One way humans strive to make sense is through stories. Again, this manifests in big and small ways. Related to folklore is mythology, the stories that help explain the origin of our world and its various phenomena. And people also do a lot of self-mythologizing to keep a consistent sense of self against the barrage of information coming from both internal and external sources that try to fragment us.

To apply it on a personal level, I’m always a fan of stories about young children and babies that reinforce a narrative fundamental to their adult identity. For exmple, perhaps my husband’s defining trait is his curiosity. He will fall down research rabbit holes all day, gleefully, and come up holding random facts like jewels in his palms. It can be charming, and it can be exhausting. But he’s always been like this. He eagerly tells the story of when he was a baby, and his parents would transport him in a baby carrier that oriented him tucked in against his parents’ chests. Lots of babies would feel safe. Not him! He craned around, needing to look at the world around him. Only when he was carried facing out would he stop fussing.

Are there stories from his youth that would not bolster this narrative that he’s a fundamentally curious person? Certainly, I can even think of one off the top of my head. But the tendency is to cherry pick. It’s fun, maybe even important, to think of ourselves as consistent. 

When Stories Fail Us

I’m no psychologist, but I imagine it can be healthy to have a strong sense of identity that can be backed up with stories. Likewise, we can tell hurtful stories about ourselves. If anyone wants to tell the story “bad things always happen to me,” they can probably come up with plenty of anecdotes as evidence. But how useful is a story that renders you helpless?

What really fascinates me are the stories that are helpful until they aren’t. For a long time, I would tell myself that I’m scrappy and I can always do what I need to get by. That story worked when life was tough and I needed to summon a lot of strength. It stopped serving me when I could only think in terms of “getting by.” I had limited my own imagination about what was possible in my life. To change my life, I had to change the story. Now my story is that I can be scrappy if I need to be, but I can also rely on people who love me to help out when things get tough.

Storytelling as Entertaining

In the end, storytelling isn’t always that deep. If you think about it, most of us spend a lot of our free time engaged with storytelling in some fashion, whether it’s books, TV, movies, video games, podcasts, etc. Even the joy of watchings sports involves witnessing a story play out. Stories are perhaps our most fundamental form of entertainment.

So if you ever meet me in person, I’ll tell you any number of my good stories. The one about the amazing man I met while walking in Scotland who directed me to what he described as an “absolute skyscraper of birds” inhabiting an island cliff. Or my grandfather’s story about trying to help a fellow WWII soldier break up with a girlfriend by faking his death. The story about how a rogue mango nearly ended my friend’s scientific career. The time my friends and I unexpectedly ended up as dancing llamas in a New Year’s Eve parade. Stop me if I’ve told you this one before…