The Story of the Experiments

There’s a moment when you’re reading a book and you notice more and more the way in which the author is making their argument–whether it’s fiction or non-fiction–and you’re not noticing the argument itself as much.

It’s not a good place to be, really.

Despite being in that place with Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories, I decided to embrace my sudden, growing distractability. A friend and I passed the tablet back and forth, using the Penultimate app to draw cartoons about the experiments that hold Boyd’s arguments together. That’s not really what you’re supposed to use Penultimate for, but who cares.

The next section of Brian Boyd’s book deals with understanding and recalling events. He argues that we have certain things we automatically search for in our surroundings–animals and agency, mostly, things like us. We also have certain impulsive emotional orientations, especially toward empathy. Art, storytelling, and culture allow us to direct those impulses usefully towards helping other people.

Beyond these mostly uncontrollable impulses–our default settings, you might say–we, as humans, spend a lot of time and effort imagining what other people are thinking about and, more broadly, about how they think. This is what’s called “theory of mind,” and the advantages of having a relatively accurate theory of mind regarding other people may have been a “driving force in the growth of higher, especially primate, intelligence” (141).

We use ourselves, of course, as we have to, as a standard against which we measure and analyze other people’s actions. Boyd writes, “As one mirror-neuron specialist remarks, in a phrase that could not be more relevant to storytelling, ‘when we (and apes) look at others, we find both them and ourselves‘” (142).

Our desire to link events through causality and our interest in the motivations of other people–what we might call “plot” and “character”–lead directly to storytelling as a powerful force directing our understanding of each other and the world.

See? I actually read the chapter.

Even in drawing the silly little cartoons that my buddy and I did, you can see us trying to imagine what the other person needs to understand what a shape is. Putting dots in a circle halves an apple, for example. One of us thought you needed the shape of a rat’s body to recognize it; the other thought you needed to see its face and expression. Even in something small and silly, theory of mind is at work. And look how awesome those monkeys are?

Here are some videos on the experiments my pal and I drew:

The Grape and the Cucumber

Sick Rats and Saccharine


Projecting Shapes

The Sally Anne Test

(Unfortunately I couldn’t find a video for the monkey-water glass-apple halves experiment so here’s a link)