“Stories are rehearsals for real life.”
When we read a story, our brains plot everything that’s going on, from the character’s physical locations in space to their interactions with objects in the environment to their pursuit of various psychological and emotional goals. Many of the brain areas active while reading are also active when we actually take part in or observe similar situations in real life. The regions involved in processing goal-directed activity and the manipulation of objects, for example, are at work during both fictional and factual encounters. Just as we understand metaphors by mentally simulating what they describe, we understand stories by imaginatively acting them out in our minds. Stories are rehearsals for real life.
Over the past two years, I have been reading to deepen my understanding of meaning. Believe me, the task is as big as it sounds.
It all started with a seemingly simple question: What is my purpose? I didn’t pose the question. Someone else did. I started to answer confidently. We all have some idea of what our purpose is, right? But even as I began to talk, I realized I didn’t have a strong answer.
It wasn’t because I believed or didn’t believe. It wasn’t because I was living a life that didn’t have structure. I have people that I care passionately about; I have responsibilities that I treat with gravity.
But beyond doing what I say I will do, and following my heart to the people that I love, is there a greater purpose?
So I went to read. I re-read old works on anthropology, religion and evolution. I dived into recent works influenced by neuroscience, genetic analysis and evolutionary anthropology. I waded through thousands of words that I hardly understood.
When I got to James Geary’s new book, I is an Other, I had a pretty reasonable understanding of the science and a fairly basic theory about the essence of the human condition. This is where I got:
Humans are driven by a biological imperative to keep the species going. We have been successful through the powerful network effect of our intelligence. We’ve developed the skills of abstract communication in order to transfer information across generations and cultures. The more of us there are, the more we will learn. And we can’t learn how to be successful humans without telling stories.
Geary’s excerpt was like a big explosion of clear thought: Stories are rehearsals for real life.
That’s why we create.
Now I’ve got to figure out how to take this all and have it make sense in my own personal story. That’s where the real work comes in.