Sunday, May 25, 2008

Dreams and Storytelling

Why do we love stories? I think humanity's passion for storytelling is due to the way the brain learns new things.

Researchers have found the following: If you teach a new task to a group of people, and that night disturb the sleep of half the group in such a way that they aren't able to dream, the non-dreaming group won't remember how to perform the task the next day. The dreaming group will--and will still remember how to perform it years later, too. We need to dream in order to learn.

And what's a dream? It's your brain telling itself a story.

Here's some of the most important things human beings do with their minds (while awake):
1) We figure out the logic that underlies the world we see
2) We find solutions to our problems
3) We witness the struggles of others, and when we see someone else come up with a good idea, we recognize it as such and appropriate it for our own use

If you think about what a story is, it's a narrative which describes a person figuring out a solution to a problem and thereby coming to a greater understanding of their self or their world. In other words, your protagonist is performing activities (1) and (2) above, while your reader is engaged in activity (3).

There's obviously more than that involved in the enjoyment of stories, but I do think the reason we like them in the first place is because we evolved to watch others and try to learn from them. If you think about humanity's most ancient forms of storytelling, they were usually lessons, and they always tried to make sense of both the world and the human condition.

A story is a conscious dream. We love stories because we're all hungry to know how to navigate our lives, and that's what dreams are for--literally. Dreaming is what builds our understanding of the world.


Does that theory seem reasonable to you? Does it sound insane? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments! And remember that dissent is always welcome here, so long as it's polite. :-)


Conduit said...

I think it's a valid point. It's clear that storytelling is a crucial part of human society, and is present in all cultures. And I know that, for me, dreaming and stories go hand in hand. I read an interview with Stephen King once where he said he doesn't dream in the same lucid way when he's in the thick of a project as he does when he's on a break. I realised it's the same for me, in that I don't dream so vividly when I'm writing as when I'm not. Also, most of my ideas that have come to anything arrived in dreams, or as I woke from sleep. It wouldn't take much to convince me there's a relationship there.

Travis Erwin said...

I think there is a little bit of voyeur in all of us and a story give us a chance to get inside of another's person head and see what drives them.

Mom In Scrubs said...

I like the theory, and it definitely applies to me.

I love the little bit of research you threw in, too. Appeals to the concrete part of me!

illana cool said...

I dunno....Henry Miller seemed to have it right. Of course I am paraphrasing tons. He basically insisted that writers write to act as a God on a tiny stage, given that they cannot control the cruel and loveless universe around them. Miller also speculated that others read stories with the subconsious drive to ridicule and judge the maker for making.

Ello said...

I love that you said a story is a conscious dream. First because it is a beautiful line which I shall steal (but will credit you of course) and secondly because I really do believe that. I think I have better day dreams then night dreams and that is why I'm a writer, does that make sense?

jjdebenedictis said...

Conduit: That's really interesting about Stephen King (and you) and dreaming. I'd never heard that before, and it does appear to give credence to there being a connection. Cool! Thanks for adding such an interesting tidbit to the discussion.

Travis: Definitely; establishing reader-empathy for the protagonist is so important that it makes you think that's the point of reading novels--to get inside another person's head and experience what they do. Great point!

Mom in Scrubs: I'm always fascinated by the point where science and art collide. I really want to know, on a biological level, why we create art and why we respond to it. Pity that biology wasn't my field!

Illana: *waves* Hi and welcome! I'm not familiar with Mr. Miller's work, but he seems to be reading a lot of motivations into the process that I don't see. Then again, maybe I'm just too much of a geek. I tend to be more interested in the brain science angle of it rather than the psychology.

Still, the psychology of why we create art is pretty fascinating too. I'll have to read up on Mr. Miller now, so thank you for bringing up his name!

Ello: Ooh! I said something good enough to steal? Awesome-sauce! :-D

I have really great night dreams, but they don't make logical sense to my conscious mind. I think my day dreams are more satisfying as far as entertainment goes--so yes! What you said makes perfect sense. I completely agree.

Lisa said...

I think this goes hand in hand with the theory that some of our best writing/problem solving comes from the unconscious. Robert Olen Butler's book FROM WHERE WE DREAM is one of my favorite writing books. He maintains that the worst stories come from having ideas and the best come from what he calls "dreamstorming".

jjdebenedictis said...

Lisa: "[D]reamstorming". I love that phrase! And that sounds like a really interesting writing book; I'm going to have to try to find that one. Thanks for mentioning it!

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