Let’s say you go on a first date. Over dinner and a few glasses of wine, you get to know each other a bit. At the end of the evening, you part ways and return to your apartment. As you discuss your date with your roommate she asks, “so, is he smart?” After a few hours together you definitely have an opinion and reply “no, not so much.” But how did you decide your date’s intelligence? Or the intelligence of any other person for that matter? We don’t walk around asking people probing questions designed to test intelligence. Yet, we feel if we can assess a person’s intelligence after a relatively short amount of interaction. How do we do this?
The answer lies in our storytelling ability and our assessment of that other person’s stories. More on that below. First, here’s a bit about how storytelling has been important to our survival.
Our Storied History
As a species, we’ve evolved to tell stories. “Our brains have been wired by evolution in such a manner that remembering a story is far easier than remembering isolated bits of information. Stringing together events and facts into a believable and satisfying narrative is the brain’s way to conserve energy.” Source.
Furthermore, our storytelling ability may be our species’ killer app; it may be the key ingredient to us flourishing as a species. According to Yuval Noah Harari in his excellent book Sapiens, there have been three major revolutions in our species’ history: a “cognitive revolution” about 70,000 years go, an “agricultural revolution” 10,000 years ago and a “scientific revolution” 500 years ago. These three revolutions allowed humans to jump to the top of the food chain very quickly and the cognitive revolution was the biggest driver of our success.
The cognitive revolution describes the expansion of our cognitive abilities which led to the development of our intricate and nuanced language and also was when we developed the ability to tell stories and talk about abstract ideas. The ability to tell stories and create and communicate myths is a key difference between us and other primates. Stories allow large groups of strangers to cooperate and identify as a common tribe or group. According to Harari:
Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe that God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed Himself to be crucified to redeem our sins. States are rooted in common national myths. Two Serbs who have never met might risk their lives to save one another because both believe in the existence of the Serbian nation, the Serbian homeland and the Serbian flag. Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths. Two lawyers who have never met can nevertheless combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they both believe in the existence of laws, justice, human rights – and the money paid out in fees.
Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.
Thus, our storytelling ability is key to the development of human societies. According to Harari, “Planet Earth was conquered by Homo sapiens rather than by chimpanzees or elephants, because we are the only mammals that can cooperate in very large numbers. And large-scale cooperation depends on believing common stories.”
Note that “stories” can mean relating events that really happened, like stories about bravery and sacrifice for others in a war, and can also mean fictional accounts like the shared story of the underdog fighting for justice as represented in Star Wars. Stories can also just be gossip about others. In fact, a very large proportion of human communication is stories that are in the form of gossip.
Intelligence and Stories
“Human beings are collections of stories. They accumulate stories over a lifetime, and when they are given the opportunity, they select an appropriate story and tell it.” – Roger Schank
Roger Schank of Northwestern University is a pioneer in Artificial Intelligence (“AI”) and one of his areas of research concerns intelligence and how it is defined. This is an important question for AI, because if you wanted to create an intelligent computer you need to understand what intelligence is. Schank wrote an entire book, Tell Me a Story: Narrative and Intelligence about how storytelling relates to intelligence.
Storytelling is Key to Memory: Schank’s book is fantastic and covers many aspects of the importance of stories in indexing and retrieving memories. A primary conclusion is that the ability to store away an experience as a story and then retrieve it and tell it at the right time is a key aspect of intelligence. Our experiences that we don’t tell as stories, whether to ourselves or others, fade away. We tend to remember only those experiences that we have storified. In the long-term, what we remember is not the actual experience, but the gist of the story we’ve told: “memory tends to lose the original [experience] and keep the copy. The original events recede, and the new story takes its place.”
So, a key aspect of intelligence is is the ability to store away experiences in memory in a way that they can be retrieved at the right time and in the appropriate situation and the primary way we store and index memories is via stories.
Humans are Storytelling Machines: A large part of our interactions with other people is telling stories. What happens is that I tell a story of something that happened, you then respond with a story which lets me know that you understand the story I told you. Back and forth we go. We then judge each other’s intelligence based on the quality and relevance of the stories we tell. According to Schank, “we assess the intelligence of others on the basis of the stories that they tell and on the basis of the receptivity to our own stories.”
Intelligence and Understanding. “We view intelligence as being intimately bound up with the notion of understanding. When people seem to truly understand something we have said, we give them high marks. We like them and appreciate them.” Often, the best and most authentic way to convey understanding is to tell a similar story back to the person. An accurate measure of “understanding is the one that people use on a daily basis, namely a subjective evaluation of the story that we get back in response. If it is a great deal like our own story, we feel that we have been understood.”
“When someone tells you a story in response to the one you have told that captures and important generalization between the two, you believe that you have been ‘really understood,’ and you ascribe qualities of high intelligence and perception to your listener.” Having shared stories binds us together. Having few shared stories makes it hard to understand each other.
We Judge Intelligence of Others Based on the Quality of Their Stories. Much of human interaction is telling each other stories, and a primary way we judge each other’s intelligence is the quality of stories we tell, including the stories we get back from others in response to our own stories. We intuitively know that “storytelling strongly reflects intelligence. Telling a good story at the right time is a hallmark of intelligence. One right time is when you are asked a question. Another right time is when someone says something to you and you respond with a relevant story.”
Pay Attention to Your Interactions – You’ll See Stories Everywhere. After reading Schank’s book I began noticing all the stories we tell each other. A co-worker, friend, or family member will tell me a story of what happened to them or someone else. I listen. I nod. And then I respond with a story of something similar or related that happened. They smile and nod. Then tell another related story. And on it goes. Fascinating. Pay attention to your interactions and see storytelling in action.
Wisdom and Expertise: Two other aspects of storytelling related to wisdom and expertise. With respect to wisdom, we often think people are wise if they have a large number of stories to tell and they can tell the right story at the right time. Similarly, expertise is related to storytelling ability.”What is an expert? An expert . . . is someone who has a great many stories to tell in one particular area of knowledge and who has those stories indexed well enough to find the right one at the right time.”
Back to the date example that started the IFOD: the intelligence of the guy on the date was largely assessed by the quality of the stories he told and how well they related to the stories the woman told.
Tip of the Iceberg. This IFOD only hit the very tip of the iceberg as it relates to storytelling. Stories are integral to how our brains work, how we interact with others, how we see the world, how we think of ourselves, how we relate to others, what ideas are powerful, who we vote for, who we choose as friends, how we remember, why each of us views ourselves as honest even though we all lie a lot, etc.
Fantastic IFOD! Great story to read while traveling home on long car ride- sparks brain activity. Explains so much about creativity. funny that my son at a very young age understood that religion is just made up stories! So true.
I do think sharing a story shows that you understand and can sympathize, that you can translate a theory or something literal into practical and relatable terms. I also think it should be done carefully, both in terms of delivery and in frequency so as to not seem selfish.
Sometimes when I’m sharing a dilemma or a confounding event and the person responds, “I had a similar experience…,” it feels like they are shifting the conversation to themselves and that they are more interested in talking about their experience than in helping me solve my particular predicament. It certainly helps in conveying to someone that they are not alone in whatever situation they are in, but it’s important to pointedly make connections to their situation and to purposefully not minimize their situation by doing so.
Such a good point! Sometimes we just should listen and validate.
Hey, speak for yourself, when you say “we” lie a lot! Great IFOD! You are an excellent storyteller my friend. Plus, you are getting better at it with each IFOD! Keep it up and thank you for the stories!
The ancients reciting epics like the Vedas and Homer over scores of generations, and with high fidelity, must have been near the pinnacle of human story-telling prowess.
Dreams are all stories housed in our mental file cabinets..fascinating how they get jumbled up late at night…very provocative topic today! Luv2Nap