Once upon a time there was a king and a bishop…
No, I’m not actually going to tell you a story right now. I just wanted you to notice something: As I started into that, your mind likely shifted into a different mode. You might have started mentally salivating as you anticipated a coming morsel of fiction. That’s because stories are special; they work a kind of magic on us. Humans everywhere—in every known society, starting from a very young age—seem to hunger for narratives. But why? What makes them so palatable and powerful? What do they do to us and for us?
This week I’m joined by two guests who research stories and the human mind. The first is Dr. Raymond Mar, Professor of Psychology at York University in Toronto. His work explores a bunch of different aspects of the psychology of stories, including the relationship between fiction reading and social cognition. My second guest is Dr. Jamie Tehrani, Professor of Anthropology at Durham University in the UK. His research examines the cultural evolution of stories, including questions about why certain stories spread and stick around (sometimes for millennia).
In this conversation, Raymond, Jamie, and I talk about why stories are so powerful. We discuss what makes something a story, and what makes something a good story. We talk about findings that reading fiction may boost our ability to understand other minds. We consider the origins and diversification of folktales by zooming in on one in particular—Little Red Riding Hood. We talk about why stories are easier to remember than essays, and we examine a few of the ingredients that make certain stories especially memorable. Finally, spoiler alert: we also do a bit of good old-fashioned story time.
This is an episode that has been on our wish list forever. Over the past few years there’s been so much buzz about stories and storytelling—both in popular media and across different academic disciplines—we thought the topic deserved an extended treatment. And so here you have it: without further ado, my conversation with Jamie Tehrani and Raymond Mar. Enjoy!