How stories keep us alive

Stories are powerful. Since the dawn of time, we have used stories to warn each other about the dangers of the world. Stories are a part of our biology. They are a survival mechanism we have evolved to keep our tribe safe. We sat around the campfire, retelling thrilling tales of near-death experiences with sabre-tooth tigers and woolly mammoths. These fables were passed down through the generations. And not only did they entertain us, but they also carried a lesson to help us avoid the fate met by those in the fables. Stories aren’t just for warnings, but recommendations too. We told stories about the best hunting grounds, berry bushes and beehives—all with the purpose of survival.

And we haven’t changed much in 10,000 years, except that we don’t have to worry about getting mauled by ice-age predators. Today we tell each other about dodgy takeaways, and bad parts of town to avoid. Likewise, we recommend products and services that we think will benefit others. But which stories do we remember the most, and why?

The most compelling stories tap into the danger-processing part of our brain, the amygdala. It’s the oldest part of the brain which carries a lot of our primal functions. We can’t ignore danger when it’s presented to us. Our brain is wired to seek the solution for the sake of our survival. This is why we desperately need to know what happens next. The best storytellers take hostage of the “what next” part of our brain. They lock us into a rollercoaster that we can’t help but ride.

Another aspect of a powerful story is a great hook. These compelling stories start with a seemingly insurmountable problem. Again, tapping into our primal brain. For example, an orphan or underdog who’s at rock bottom, but triumphs against the odds. Sound familiar? It’s prevalent in marketing and advertising too.“Film. A dangerous coating that robs teeth of their whiteness - get Pepsodent, the special film-removing dentifrice!” This early toothpaste ad is an excellent example of how a very specific problem hooks us in. No one brushed their teeth in the early 1900s, and the toothpaste industry was having a hard time selling to a populace who weren’t brushing their teeth. So by drawing attention to the problem of the filmy feeling on our teeth, our brain desperately seeks a solution, which the ad provides in the next breath. Subsequently established a new social habit and sent the dental industry into the stratosphere.

Even in mundane stories, like the one about the dodgy takeaway, start with “ooh I wouldn’t go there”, which hooks us immediately.
“It was the worst, what happened the next day was awful, you wouldn’t believe it”
“What happened?!”.
We subconsciously know that withholding information is vital to keeping our hook tort.

What also makes a good story memorable is that we can imagine it. It uses concrete imagery and active verbs which allow us to imagine the story happening in our mind easily. Stories that stick were more likely to keep us alive. So the “7 ways to avoid being killed by a sabre-toothed tiger” clickbait we told around the campfire probably had tales of not making eye contact or running away in a zig-zag pattern.

Stories are powerful because they are a part of who we are. Everything is a story - from your CV and job application to the excuse you gave to a train conductor when you tried to get away with paying for a ticket. Stories help us understand the world, and help us change it too. You get to choose what stories you tell and what stories you listen to. Especially the ones you tell yourself.

I could talk more about stories and their neurological power over us, and I will! I have an exciting collaboration in the works on the topic of storytelling—more about that in the New Year.