What is it about stories, anyway?
Anthropologists tell us that storytelling is central to human existence. That it’s common to every known culture. That it involves a symbiotic exchange between teller and listener — an exchange we learn to negotiate in infancy.
Just as the brain detects patterns in the visual forms of nature — a face, a figure, a flower — and in sound, so too it detects patterns in information. Stories are recognizable patterns, and in those patterns we find meaning. We use stories to make sense of our world and to share that understanding with others. They are the signal within the noise.
So powerful is our impulse to detect story patterns that we see them even when they’re not there.
In a landmark 1944 study, 34 humans — Massachusetts college students actually, though subsequent research suggests they could have been just about anyone — were shown a short film and asked what was happening in it. The film showed two triangles and a circle moving across a two-dimensional surface. The only other object onscreen was a stationary rectangle, partially open on one side.
Only one of the test subjects saw this scene for what it was: geometric shapes moving across a plane. Everyone else came up with elaborate narratives to explain what the movements were about. Typically, the participants viewed the triangles as two men fighting and the circle as a woman trying to escape the bigger, bullying triangle. Instead of registering inanimate shapes, they imagined humans with vivid inner lives. The circle was “worried.” The circle and the little triangle were “innocent young things.” The big triangle was “blinded by rage and frustration.”
But if stories themselves are universal, the way we tell them changes with the technology at hand. Every new medium has given rise to a new form of narrative. In Europe, the invention of the printing press and movable type around 1450 led to the emergence of periodicals and the novel. The invention of the motion picture camera around 1890 set off an era of feverish experimentation that led to the development of feature films by 1910. Television, invented around 1925, gave rise a quarter-century later to I Love Lucy and the highly stylized form of comedy that became known as the sitcom.
Read the complete article at Wired.