What Makes Humans Human?

Little, today, is as it was.

Anatomically modern humans have existed for about 200,000 years, but only since the end of the eighteenth century has artificial lighting been widely used. Gas lamps were introduced in European cities about that time, and electric lights came into use only in the twentieth century.

In other words, for most of human history, when night fell, it fell hard. Things got really, really dark,

and people gathered under the stars, which they could actually see, in those days before nighttime light pollution,

and under those stars, they told stories.

In EVERY culture around the globe, storytelling, in the form of narrative poetry, existed LONG before the invention of writing. We know this because the earliest manuscripts that we have from every culture record stories that were already ancient when they were finally written down. One of the earliest texts in English is that of the poem Beowulf. It reworks and retells, in a much distorted manner, much, much older stories—ones that predate the emergence of English as a distinct language. Stith Thompson, the great folklorist, did the literary world an enormous favor by compiling a massive index, today known as the Arne-Thompson Index, of motifs of ancient folktales worldwide. Name a story motif—three wishes, talking animals, the grateful dead, cruel stepsisters, golden apples, dragons, the fairy or demon lover, the instrument that plays itself –and you will find that the motif has an ancient pedigree and was already spread about the world long before historical times.

English is a Germanic language. All ancient Germanic societies had official storytellers whose job it was to entertain people in those days before modern entertainments like television and movies and the Internet and drones with laser-guided Hellfire missiles. In ancient Denmark, the storyteller was called a skaald. In Anglo-Saxon England, the storyteller was a scop (pronounced like MnE “shop”). The scop accompanied his stories on the Anglo-Saxon harp, a kind of lyre.

Of course, the telling of stories wasn’t the only entertainment around campfires. In most cultures, people danced and chanted and sang as well, and sometimes stories were told by the dancers or singers or chanters. All this was part of acting out the stories. (Want to know where the Christian devil, with his red body and horns, comes from? Well, in ancient Europe, people worshiped an Earth Mother and her consort, a Lord of the Forest, and they told stories of the hunt. When they acted these out around campfires, they held up to their heads animal horns, or branches in the shape of horns, and that’s how they pictured their Lord of the Forest, as a therianthrope, red from the campfire, with horns. When the Christians spread North across Europe, they made the god of the Old Religion into The Adversary. Grendel’s mother, the monster from the bog in Beowulf, is a demonized version, in a Christian story, of the ancient Anglo-Saxon fertility goddess Nerthus, to whom sacrifices were made by binding people, cutting their throats, and throwing them into a bog. You can see an ancient bas relief of the Lord of the Forest, btw, on the Gundestrup cauldron dating from 150 to 1 BCE. See the accompanying illustration.)

But where does this storytelling urge among humans come from, and why is it universal? Storytelling takes energy. And it doesn’t produce tangible results. It doesn’t mend bones or build houses or plant crops. So, why would it survive and be found among every people on Earth from the earliest times onward?

Contemporary cognitive scientists have learned that storytelling is an essential, built-in part of the human psyche, involved in every aspect of our lives, including our dreams, memories, and beliefs about ourselves and the world. Storytelling turns out to be one of the fundamental ways in which our brains are organized to make sense of our experience. Only in very recent years have we come to understand this. We are ESSENTIALLY storytelling creatures, in the Aristotelian sense of essentially. That is, it’s our storytelling that defines us. If that sounds like an overstatement, attend to what I am about to tell you. It’s amazing, and it may make you rethink a LOT of what you think you know.

At the back of each of your eyes are retinas containing rods and cones. These take in visual information from your environment. In each retina, there is a place where the optic nerve breaks through it. This is the nerve that carries visual signals to your brain. Because of this interruption of the retinas, there is a blind spot in each where NO INFORMATION AT ALL IS AVAILABLE. If what you saw was based on what signals actually hit your retina at a given moment, you would have two big black spots in your field of vision. Instead, you see a continuous visual field. Why? Because your brain automatically fills in the missing information for you, based on what was there when your eye saccaded over it a bit earlier. In other words, your brain makes up a story about what’s there. Spend some time studying optical illusions, and you will learn that this is only one example of many ways in which you don’t see the world as it is but, rather, as the story concocted by your brain says it is.

This sort of filling in of missing pieces also happens with our memories. Scientists have discovered that at any given moment, people attend to at most about seven bits of information from their immediate environment. There’s a well-known limitation of short-term memory to about seven items, give or take two, and that’s why telephone numbers are seven digits long. So, at any given moment, you are attending to only about seven items from, potentially, billions in your environment. When you remember an event, your brain FILLS IN WHAT YOU WERE NOT ATTENDING TO AT THE TIME based on general information you’ve gathered, on its predispositions, and on general beliefs that you have about the world. In short, based on very partial information, your brain makes up and tells you a STORY about that past time, and that is what you “see” in memory in your “mind’s eye.”

So, people tend to have a LOT of false memories because the brain CONFABULATES—it makes up a complete, whole story about what was PROBABLY the case and presents that whole memory to you, with the gaps filled in, for your conscious inspection. In short, memory is very, very, very faulty and is based upon the storytelling functions of the brain!!!! (And what are we except our memories? I am that boy in the Dr. Dentons, in my memory, sitting before the TV with the rabbit ears; I am that teenager in the car at the Drive-in with the girl whom I never thought in a million years would actually go out with me. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)

You can also see this storytelling function of the brain at work in dreaming. Years ago, I had a dream that I was flying into the island of Cuba on a little prop plane. Through the window, I could see the island below the plane. It looked like a big, white sheet cake, floating in an emerald sea. Next to me on the airplane sat a big, red orangutan smoking a cigar.

Weird, huh? So why did I have that dream? Well, in the days preceding the dream I had read a newspaper story about Fidel Castro, the leader of Cuba, being ill; I had flown on a small prop plane; I had attended a wedding where there was a big, white sheet cake; I had been to the zoo with my grandson, where we saw an orangutan; and I had played golf with some friends, and we had smoked cigars.

The neural circuits in my brain that had recorded these bits and pieces were firing randomly in my sleeping brain, and the part of the brain that does storytelling was working hard, trying to piece these random fragments together into a coherent, unified story. That’s the most plausible current explanation of why most dreams occur. The storytelling parts of the brain are responding to random inputs and tying them together—making sense of this random input by making a plausible story of them. This is akin to the process, pareidolia, that leads people see angels in cloud formations and pictures of Jesus on their toast.

So, those are three important reasons why the brain is set up as a storytelling device. Storytelling allows us to see a complete visual field; creates for us, from incomplete data, coherent memories; and ties together random neural firings in our brains to into the wholes that we call dreams.
But that’s not all that storytelling does for us. Storytelling about the future allows us to look ahead—for example, to determine what another creature is going to do. We often play scenarios in our minds that involve possible futures. What will she say if I ask her to the prom? What will the boss say if I ask for a raise? How will that go down? In other words, storytelling provides us with a THEORY OF MIND for predicting others’ behavior.

Stories also help people to connect to one another. When we tell others a story, we literally attune to them. We actually get “on the same wavelengths.” Uri Hasson, a neuroscientist at Princeton, recorded the brainwaves of people during rest and while listening to a story. During rest, their waves were all over the place. While listening to the same story, even at different times and places, those people had brainwaves that were in synch.

Storytelling also provides a mechanism for exploring and attempting to understand others generally. Our basic situation in life is that your mind is over there and mine is over here. We’re different, and we have to try to figure each other out—to have a theory of other people’s minds. By telling myself a story about you, I can attempt to bridge that ontological gap. Unfortunately, the stories we tell ourselves about others tend to be fairly unidimensional. You are simply this or that. I, on the other hand, am an international man of mystery. This is a tendency we need to guard against.

We also tell stories in order to influence others’ behavior–to get them to adopt the story we’re telling as their own. This is how advertising works, for example. The advertiser gets you to believe a story about how you will be sexier or smarter or prettier or more successful or of higher status if you just buy the product with the new, fresh lemony scent. And it’s not just advertisers who do this. Donald Trump sold working class Americans a fiction about how he could strike deals that would make America great again because he was such a great businessman, one who started with nothing and made billions. The coach tells a story in which her team envisions itself as the winners of the Big Game. The woo-er tells the woo-ee the story of the great life they will have together (“Come live with me and be my love/And we shall all the pleasures prove”). And so on. Successful cult leaders, coaches, lovers, entrepreneurs, attorneys, politicians, religious leaders, marketers, etc., all share this is common: they know that persuasion is storytelling. The best of them also understand that the most successful stories, in the long run, are ones that are true, even if they are fictional.

When we tell stories, we spin possible futures—we try things on, hypothetically. And that helps us to develop ideas about who we want to be and what we want to do. Gee, if I travel down that road, I may end up in this better place.

And that observation leads to one final, supremely important function of storytelling: Who you are—your very SELF—is a story that you tell yourself about yourself and your history and your relations to others—a story with you as the main character. The stories you tell yourself about yourself become the person you are. The word person, by the way, comes from the Latin persona, for a mask worn by an actor in the Roman theatre.

So, our very idea of ourselves, of our own personal identity, is dependent upon this storytelling capacity of the human brain, which takes place, for the most part, automatically. There is even a new form of psychotherapy called cognitive narrative therapy that is all about teaching people to tell themselves more life-enhancing, affirmative stories about themselves, about who they are.

Telling yourself the right kinds of stories about yourself and others can unlock your creative potential, improve your relationships, and help you to self create—to be the person you want to be.

So, to recapitulate, storytelling . . .

helps us to fill in the gaps so that we have coherent memories,

ties together random firings in the brain into coherent dreams,

enables us to sort and make sense of past experience,

gives us theories of what others think and how they will behave,

enables us to influence others’ behavior,

enables us to try on various futures, and

helps us to form a personal identity, a sense of who were are.

Kinda important, all that!

Storytelling, in fact, is key to being human. It’s our defining characteristic. It’s deeply embedded in our brains. It runs through every aspect of our lives. It makes us who we are.

It’s no wonder then, that people throughout history have told stories. People are made to construct stories—plausible and engaging accounts of things—the way a stapler is made to staple and a hammer is made to hammer. We are Homo relator, man the storyteller.

(BTW, the root *man, meaning “human being” in general, without a specific gender reference, is ancient. It goes all the way back to Proto-Indo-European, but there’s still good reason, today, to seek out gender-neutral alternatives, when possible, of course.)

Copyright 2015. Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.

Art: Detail from the Gundestrup Cauldron. Nationalmuseet [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)]

For more pieces by Bob Shepherd on the topic of Education “Reform,” go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/ed-reform/

For more pieces on the teaching of literature and writing, go here: https://bobshepherdonline.wordpress.com/category/teaching-literature-and-writing/


About Bob Shepherd

interests: curriculum design, educational technology, learning, linguistics, hermeneutics, rhetoric, philosophy (Continental philosophy, Existentialism, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics), classical and jazz guitar, poetry, the short story, archaeology and cultural anthropology, history of religion, prehistory, veganism, sustainability, Anglo-Saxon literature and language, systems for emergent quality control, heuristics for innovation
This entry was posted in Short Stories, Teaching Literature and Writing, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to What Makes Humans Human?

  1. Abby says:

    Thank you so much for your insightful posts. Notice in the cauldron bas relief, the Lord holds the serpent in one hand and appears to hold a symbol of the ourobouros in the other. Sometimes it seems the ancients held so much more wisdom than we do. Speaking of dreams, what is your take on predictive dreams? How do they fit into the storytelling model that you have outlined? I had one the other night that was predictive to the minute of what would take place. So much of what we think and believe seems to be illusory, but there are events that happen that seem to fall into pre-determined patterns. I would be interested on your thoughts on this matter.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bob Shepherd says:

      Many decades ago, my mother, her sister, and my grandmother were all living in a farmhouse in Kentucky. The sister’s husband, Ed, was a soldier in Korea. One morning, my grandmother was telling the two young women about a nightmare she had had the night before in which Ed appeared, on crutches, at the top of a hill, saying that he had been “hit” and would be returning home. As my grandmother was telling the story, a taxi pulled into the drive. My mother’s sister saw the taxi and fainted. It carried a soldier there to tell them that Ed had stepped on a land mine in Korea and had lost a leg. This story is often told in my family. But think about this: If the dream had not been true, it would have been forgotten. Instead, it was told and retold many, many times. So, we tend to remember the dreams that come true and to forget the ones that don’t. And, often our unconscious minds are better than our conscious minds are at putting things together and making predictions. I’m a writer. My best stories often come to me in dreams. I wake up, and there the story is, full blown, in my mind, and I often think, my God, that’s better than anything I would have come up with consciously. Traditionally, such revelations have been ascribed to inspiration by a Muse.

      On the other hand, I think that there is strong reason to ascribe to a block time view–that all time exists at all time but that we can, at any moment, perceive directly only the instant that we are in. Are there instances in which there are “leaks” from the future? Well, that’s a fascinating speculation, isn’t it? What do you think?

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Roy Turrentine says:

    You suggest in the essay that the stories we tell about ourselves are much richer in detail than thee ones we tell about others. This is a particularly important insight. Even the best of tellers slips in the autobiographical.

    Once my wife and I were camping inVirginia near the Appalachian Trail. A couple had gotten off the trail for a hot shower at our campground and we got into one of those conversations with other campers that last for awhile because you are away from home and feel no obligation to be responsible. The lady who did most of the talking wove a perfect tale of the crime she had seen from afar. It was about her observations and feelings about the perpetrator, whom she had distrusted from the start of their chance meeting, and who ultimately raped another hiker. One of the things that made her story riveting was the way she told it from her own feelings about what was going on. (The rape occurred in 1991 or so down inn the northern Tennessee portion of the trail. Apparently a repeat offender, the guy got put away over this I think).

    The great storytellers like Melville, Hugo, Dostoyevsky, etc, are able to place themselves within that ethereal realm between themselves and their subjects, allowing the reader into parts of the story we can only imagine. The blank places you describe in the optical nerve endings are much larger as we try to fill in enough of the story about things outside ourselves. Imaginations change the realities so much that perception of truth pushes out truth itself, to the end that the story has a richness in spite of its fictitious limitations.

    When it comes to how this intersects with history, we have a problem. Movies and books become perceptions of reality, for better or worse. Every salve owner became Simon Legree in the minds of the readers of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book. Every dog Lassie to a boy who was fated to wander in a agricultural setting alone. Every German became an SS officer as the war brought more and more home in a box. Every immigrant can easily become the one that killed your friend in a car accident, for the human mind tends to complete the blank places, and there are more of them than there are places filled in. Prejudices arise from our human tendency to generalize what is always a dearth of information.

    Perhaps this is what the Judeo-Christian perception of man as fundamentally evil is all about. Unable to see but a square centimeter of the elephant that is our reality, we are doomed by this to constantly behave in ways that obey our ignorance of the way the story comes out. The original sin of being human is not knowing, humility and willingness to die to truth is our only hope.

    Great essay, Bob. As the wood stove chases away the 18 degrees that is my bright early Tennessee morning, I thank you for it.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Bob Shepherd says:

    Oh my Lord, Roy. That is all so interesting and so beautifully said!


  4. “Storytelling, in fact, is key to being human. It’s our defining characteristic.”

    What allows for that storytelling? Representational language. Do other animals have the capability of representational language that allows them the same or similar abilities to speak of the past, present, future, irreality, surreality and/or reality itself (whatever that may be)?

    I’d contend that to a small degree they can use sounds to represent various concepts that enhance their chance of survival perhaps long enough to be able to reproduce, which I consider to be the fundamental/ultimate raison d’être for all living beings. (Which I also realize that many homo supposedly sapiens find to be trite, quite low brow.) So how much is that squirrel trying to say about the future when he is barking at that hawk that just landed in a nearby tree? Or what does the cawing of crows at the site of a dead crow say about their thinking? Are those not instances of a type of “storytelling”?

    In regards to what sets us apart from the rest of living beings, I’m not so sure that homo supposedly sapiens is really as far removed from the natural world in which we are a part of as some of us might think.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bob Shepherd says:

      Well observed, Duane!!! Yes. Yes. Yes. Clearly, this piece needs some revision to account for these facts. There’s been a lot of scientific work on this lately. Lots of other animals clearly have memories, plan for the future, consider alternatives, reason, exhibit self-awareness by passing the mirror test, make predictions about what other animals are going to do, and so on. The story of evolution is one of marked continuity, as Darwin made clear, long ago, in his beautiful book on the expression of emotions in humans and other animals.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Bob Shepherd says:

      So, Duane. Thank you for your comment. Extraordinarily well observed!

      Liked by 2 people

  5. mincs1 says:

    The essay was a very interesting read. And so were the comments!!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Nan Mykel says:

    I’m happy to have discovered your site, and you. But on June 16, 2019, I declared myself a romantic! Oops. But perhaps you could say more about what’s down the rabbit hole. Perhaps “why?” is an obsolete word unless one is opening a book? I accept that free will isn’t free. I wonder if this “hammer is for hammering” concept is behind the findings that the significance of scientific experiments often peter out over time. I know my story is getting too long, but I wonder if there might be a difference between “sensing” (listening to the feelings of one’s insides without interpretation) versus “making sense” of those gut level experiences?

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Nan Mykel says:

    If evolution is a story, is it reality?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bob Shepherd says:

      It isn’t SIMPLY a story. Many things are, but some aren’t.


      • Nan Mykel says:



        On Sat, Jun 29, 2019 at 10:50 AM Bob Shepherd | Praxis wrote:

        > Bob Shepherd commented: “It isn’t SIMPLY a story. Many things are, but > some aren’t.” >

        Liked by 1 person

      • Nan Mykel says:

        Are you familiar with Timothy D. Wilson’s “Strangers to Ourselves–Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious?” Comments, if you have. It seems strange he doesn’t discuss free will, but maybe I missed it. It’s not in the index. The term “adaptive unconscious” may not have been accepted or caught on or I’ve missed it.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Storytelling | NANMYKEL.COM

  9. RealGold says:

    When it comes to how this intersects with history, we have a problem. Movies and books become perceptions of reality, for better or worse. Every salve owner became Simon Legree in the minds of the readers of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book. Every dog Lassie to a boy who was fated to wander in a agricultural setting alone. Every German became an SS officer as the war brought more and more home in a box. Every immigrant can easily become the one that killed your friend in a car accident, for the human mind tends to complete the blank places, and there are more of them than there are places filled in. Prejudices arise from our human tendency to generalize what is always a dearth of information.
    Sometimes it seems the ancients held so much more wisdom than we do. Speaking of dreams, what is your take on predictive dreams? How do they fit into the storytelling model that you have outlined? I had one the other night that was predictive to the minute of what would take place.. This is my Email , I will love to have conversations with you if you don’t mind.. luisfally1@gmail.com
    Please I’ll be waiting for your reply..

    Liked by 2 people

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