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Our brains are hot-wired to make us all storytellers

We all love a good story and it’s no wonder as it seems our brains are hot-wired to make a story out of virtually anything. According to scientists our brains are pre-ordained to make order out of chaos, to construct a story out of the debris of facts around us.

Professor Nick Chater reveals how storytelling comes naturally as experiments have shown how our brains are continually putting order and structure on our environment and experiences.

Professor Chater, who is Professor of Behavioural Science at Warwick Business School, on BBC Radio 4’s The Human Zoo, explained:

The activity on our retinas which is caused by the stimulation of light is just amazingly noisy and amazingly complicated, yet we find order very effectively - the brain is an extraordinary ‘order-finding’ machine. People are always trying to impose structure on the environment and there are two structures natural to impose. One is causality, so we want to understand what caused what, so the unfolding experience in front of us does not seem like a disconnected jumble, but actually has a logical structure.
On top of that the world does not just consist of objects acting causally, like dominos knocking each over, but also involves people and people behave because of reason. Therefore we also want to explain human action by what people believe; what their secret motives were, what their intentions were and this is something that is absolutely essential to the idea of stories - that people’s behaviour is explained by hidden reason.”

An experiment on Radio 4 listeners showed how even when not asked people will put order on to chaos. Their task was to simply type out a sentence of mangled words and pass it on to the next person, like a game of Chinese whispers.

We saw how people imposed order on a pattern even if their task is just to repeat it,” said Professor Chater. “They couldn’t help but re-arrange the letters so they could read the sentence properly. This ability to find order where there is none is something we can’t turn off.”

For more information

Listen to Professor Nick Chater and Ed Gardiner,of the Behavioural Design Lab, on BBC Radio 4's The Human Zoo. Or to take part in The Human Zoo's online experiment click here.