The Power of Stories

January 05, 2021

Humans don't think in terms of numbers and strings. Humans think in stories.

In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues that what makes humans distinct as a species is not our ability to use tools or the size of our brains, but rather our ability to believe in fictions.

These fictions aren't just epic tales of Odysseus and Gilgamesh. Any concept that does not exist in the physical world is a fiction. America is a fiction, Liberalism is a fiction, culture is a fiction.

Evolutionarily, these stories of human belonging enable us to coordinate at unprecedented scales. An ant can organize it's local colony, but humans can organize across the globe.

Personally, we can see the effect of stories on the brain by testing our memory with mnemonic devices.

As anyone could tell you it's far easier for us to remember that a family of five bought two apples from one grocery store than it is to remember a number like 521. Stories improve our ability to remember.

When we teach popular science, we don't teach equations, we teach stories. We personify particles and describe with metaphors. We don't lead with Schrödinger's equation, but with his cat. Stories harmonize with the human mind, numbers wrestle with it.

If you understand how people think, speak in terms of stories.


© 2020 Connor Daly