Brian Boyd


On his book On the Origin of Stories

Cover Interview of September 22, 2009

A close-up

Children love stories, and they love pretend play.  And developmental psychologists have discovered extraordinary things about the growth of children’s minds.  Very young children learn to understand other minds in terms of intentions and desires, as other animals can, but only between four and five do children start to understand that others can have different beliefs about a situation than what they know to be the case—a level of theory of mind no non-human animal ever seems to reach.

New methods of experiment and observation allow psychologists to discover even in infant behavior just how much knowledge we enter the world with.  But children’s mistakes even at the age of four, quite bizarre to adults, also show how slowly our minds develop to the fully human level, to where we can understand what lies behind most of our actions and therefore most of our stories.

Even before they develop a good deal of their capacity to comprehend events, children understand the role of pattern in story, and the need to engage attention, as this two-and-a-half-year-old’s “story” wonderfully illustrates:

The monkeys
They went up sky
They fall down
Choo choo train in the sky
The train fell down in the sky
I fell down in the sky in the water
I got on my boat and my legs hurt
Daddy fall down in the sky.

Longitudinal studies of children’s pretend play, too, reveal striking features of early stories.

Here two preschoolers, Jennifer and Muhammed, play with toy animals at a sand table.  Jennifer has a little duck, and Muhammed a dinosaur.

Jennifer, high-pitched voicing, as duck:
Oh big dinosaur
I cannot

Muhammed, in deep, gruff voice:
No, you can get on me
I just won’t care.

Jennifer puts her duck on the dinosaur’s back.

Jennifer, in deep voice, pushing the duck into the sand:
He said, he said
You bad dinosaur
Quickly, she hided in the sand
so the dinosaur

No, pretend he killed her
He’s already killed

Notice how the children opt for the most dramatic, attention-catching events—like the sudden death here—yet negotiate, like animals at play, to keep the play going.

Minds evolved to focus on the here and now, and they could hardly have evolved any other way.  But through pretend play, human children, starting with physical props, with a stick or a pebble that can be an animal or baby, or a toy dinosaur and a duck, can get beyond the actual to the possible or the impossible.

In time they can dispense with the physical props and use the cultural props of the stories and myths of the culture.  They need not be confined to the way things are, but can turn actuality around within the much larger space of possibility to explain how things are or see how they might be.