Brian Boyd


On his book On the Origin of Stories

Cover Interview of September 22, 2009

In a nutshell

Why do we tell stories—or, for that matter, engage in any of the arts?  In a world of unsparing biological competition, how could a successful species afford an unflagging appetite for stories we know to be untrue?  Why do we expend time and resources on music, dance, design, and stories?  The arts, and especially the art of fiction, give us pleasure, of course.  But does that pleasure reflect biological advantage?  Or do the arts simply press our pleasure buttons, just as drugs or candy do, without offering us real long-term benefit, or even damaging us if we have too much?

What can a modern evolutionary understanding of humans and other animals explain about the arts?  And since brains and behaviors don’t fossilize, how can we also use developmental psychology to trace the emergence of art?

On the Origin of Stories offers a comprehensive explanation for the arts, especially the art of fiction.  Art, I argue, is a kind of high play.

Play exists in mammals, birds and even intelligent invertebrates.  If in safe situations animals practice the behaviors that make the greatest life-and-death difference, like flight and fight, they can then perform better in moments of high urgency.  As those more inclined to practice more often survive more often, the desire to practice intensifies over the generations until practice becomes irresistibly self-rewarding.  The sheer fun of play overcomes the deeply-rooted inclination not to expend energy if effort can be avoided.

Humans depend not just on physical skills but even more on mental power: we alone inhabit the cognitive niche.  We therefore crave the high yield of patterned information.  We chase and tussle, but we also play cognitively, with patterns of the kinds of information that matter most to us: sound (music), sight (the visual arts) and, in our ultrasocial species, social information (story).

Art and fiction start here. Intense repetition and concentrated attention can rewire brains incrementally, as they do in play.  The compulsiveness of music, images and story reshapes human minds as we play in a self-rewarding way with the high-density information of art.