Mammals, play, and storytelling

Multiple shots of dog playing with a dollI once knew a pastor who said that minds and lives don’t change because of single books or single words, but because of single paragraphs. That, in terms of altering the basic structure of a person’s thinking–and, maybe, therefore changing their behavior–that a book is too long, too fragmented, too inconsistent, and a sentence is just too short to really blow your mind.

Brian Boyd’s book, On the Origin of Stories, is filled with highly quotable paragraphs that changed the way I think (at least temporarily) about why human beings tell stories. Here are a handful:

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(Haiku Deck, by the way, isn’t the best when it comes to putting semi-long quotes into presentations, FYI. I had to sort of hack it to get my quotes in, using the list and graph slide options.)

Boyd uses all kinds of great examples to show play as a pan-mammalian behavior, including chimps using logs as toy dolls in the wild and dolphins blowing bubble rings in captivity.

Watching the dolphins, I was surprised to find, made me feel like I was playing too. Their joy (or what I assume is a joyful feeling) at playing is infectious. I layer my own feelings of playfulness on top of theirs.

Boyd goes on to suggest that this playfulness is the source of storytelling, that it’s related to childhood pretend play, which is a pan-species trait (Jonathan Gottschall, in The Storytelling Animal, uses childhood pretend play as an important element of his argument, although Boyd’s description is more confident and more convincing).

Put another way, all story is (it seems Boyd is saying) is a way of playing dress up again, even if it’s in our own clothes, even if it’s ourselves that we’re pretending to be.

Another element that is related to all this is our unique ability as humans to share sustained focus. Think of a bunch of people sitting in the dark of a movie theater. Even if a few people are texting, most are watching 2-dimensional images of strangers pretending to be people they’re not projected onto a screen. This isn’t something you find occurring elsewhere in the natural world.

This shared focus might be related to our ability (unique, I assume Boyd means, in its magnitude and not in its actuality) to cooperate:

“In fact evolutionary anthropology and biology increasingly stress that a major difference between humans and other mammals is that [humans] have found ways to control the urge for dominance, by collaborating to resist being dominated, and that this capacity has unleashed the unique power of cooperation.”

All of which makes me think that storytelling is maybe the result of a confluence of unique capabilities present in humans: our universal need to play and pretend and practice solving problems, our ability to sustain a shared focus, our thoroughly impressive capacity for self-sacrifice and cooperation.