“A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens--second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter,” said Reynolds Price, novelist, poet and professor at Duke University.
Not necessarily, asserts Tim Parks, a novelist, essayist, translator, and an Associate Professor of Literature and Translation at IULM University in Milan writing in a New York Review of Books Blog post, Do We Need Stories?
Focusing on fiction, Parks explains, “…the self requires a story; it is the account of how each of us accrues and sheds attributes over seventy or eighty years—youth, vigor, job, spouse, success, failure—while remaining, at some deep level, myself, my soul…Telling the stories of various characters in relation to each other, how something started, how it developed, how it ended, novels are intimately involved with the way we make up ourselves.”
“But do we actually need this intensification of self that novels provide?” he asks. “I suspect not.”
A recent piece by Annie Murphy Paul, in the New York Times, Your Brain on Fiction suggests otherwise. Reporting on scientific studies using the latest techniques in brain imaging, Paul says, “Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life…The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.”
“Fiction, Dr. [Keith] Oatley [an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist)] notes, “is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.”
So, if we do need stories, is fiction the only source? Thomas Larson, author of The Memoir and The Memoirist, in a guest post on Richard Gilbert’s blog, Narrative, Your Brain on Nonfiction vs. Fiction lays out the case for creative nonfiction having potentially equal importance. Says Larson, “Nonfiction has accomplished everything fiction has in terms of narrative, description, and insight into human character. What’s more, it extends and complicates the relationship between an author and her actual (some dead, some living) human subjects, which fiction cannot do because its characters exist only in the book itself. Neuroscientists, please add us nonfictionists to your MRI studies.”
Whatever the scientific studies and debates among the literati may ultimately show, it seems that human history has demonstrated our voracious desire for stories. Whether huddling close together around a campfire in a prehistoric cave to relive the tale of the latest hunt, or huddled around the latest electronic gadget to enjoy a digitally preserved tale, people hunger for stories.
It’s difficult to argue with Harvey Cox theologian and professor at the Harvard Divinity School’s assertion that “All human beings have an innate need to hear and tell stories and to have a story to live by.”