Gathering around a roaring telly – The science of storytelling

In the 1970s parents told children they’d get ‘square eyes’ from watching too much telly. There’s still some snobbery around the idea of hunkering down in front of the TV, which is seen as somehow less worthy than the theatre, opera, film, books, even radio. But is TV really an ‘idiot box’, or is there a deep and enduring reason for humanity’s love for it?

As it turns out, scientists have some very interesting things to say about the irresistible attraction of the goggle box and the stories it tells us, especially in our Covid world.

Why are we interested?

As you know, our coaching work revolves around the proven power of storytelling. When you build a story out of the facts and present it that way, the impact is so much more powerful and effective than presenting the information in any other way.

How often do you huddle around a roaring TV? According to scientists, watching telly and staring at flickering flames have very similar physiological effects, not only providing clues to the enduring power of entertainment but also giving us a peep into the ancient origins of humanity’s unusually sociable nature.

Some believe watching TV is a wasted time, dead time, time we could be spending more productively. The Anthropologist Christopher Lynn doesn’t. In his view there are some very good reasons why TV is about as far from frivolous as it gets. It reveals the ancient remains of a behaviour that evolved to help humans survive the tough Stone Age world.

It’s possible that storytelling is even more important to humanity’s development than the invention of weapons, the wheel, or even farming. Socialising is hard-wired into human behaviour to such a degree that it’s something we need to do in a deep and fundamental way, not just something fun that we enjoy. No wonder so many of us are finding lockdowns and social isolation so hard to handle – it eats away at the very fabric of our humanity.

There’s more. Lynn also believes humanity’s unusually sociable nature started when we learned how to control fire.

The anthropologist Polly Wiessner from the University of Utah has been visiting the Ju/’hoansi tribe of south African hunter-gatherers for decades. Studying their conversations led to an amazing discovery. Daytime was reserved for talk about practical things like where to find food and complaints about fellow tribespeople. But the conversations changed radically at night, around the fire. About 80% of these conversations were stories which, while entertaining, also contained information about social norms, traditions, and remote social contacts who could help when times were hard. It looked a lot like the stories people told at night were designed to make survival easier. And that made these stories much more important than the practical, everyday-talk that took place away from the campfire.

Interestingly, some ancient campfire remains date back 1.5 million years, but humans didn’t learn to actually control fire until a million years ago. This means people would have had to collect wildfire and keep it going, which in turn means co-operation in keeping a fire going became a life-saver. Keeping fire going probably meant sticking close to it through the night. No wonder, unlike animals, humans have evolved to value fire, and love cooperating, socialising and storytelling around one, and no wonder groups of cooperative humans thrive better than less cooperative groups.

Light a fire and people will naturally gather around it. We can’t help ourselves. A love of fire is in our blood, in our bones, in our DNA. A TV flickers very much like a fire, and it tells us stories. No wonder it’s such a powerful draw.

How flickering fire stimulates storytelling

Photo by Kevin Erdvig

When we watch a video of a campfire our blood pressure drops significantly, a clear sign of relaxation. When we watch a still, upside down image of a fire, it just doesn’t happen. The most outgoing people relax the most of all, revealing a strong hidden link between fire, relaxing and socialising.

One experiment saw volunteers watching a film instead of a video of a fire. The film was simply a careers advice video, not at all exciting and not even very interesting. But it reduced people’s blood pressure all the same, and again the impact was biggest for the most sociable viewers.

It looks a lot like there could be a strong link between flickering flames, group socialising, and storytelling.

When another group of scientists monitored the brain activity of people watching a real fire they saw large delta waves associated with ‘memory and attentiveness’. This suggests a flickering fire helps tune the human brain to better receive lessons inside stories. The next step is to find out whether people gazing into a campfire develop synchronised delta waves, hinting at deep social cohesion.

Our ancient love of stories by firelight goes some way to explaining TV’s popularity, so popular it has been widely – and rudely – called ‘the opium of the masses’. Science is beginning to reveal how TV isn’t a waste of time, something ignorant people get lost in at the expense of more valuable activities. In much the same way as fire, TV’s storytelling is actually fundamental.

It’s OK to sometimes glue yourself to Netflix!

Stories hold a vital key in understanding the evolution of our species. Flickering fire sits at the heart of humanity’s ancient storytelling tradition. Next time you feel compelled to huddle in front of screen with your family and lose yourselves in stories, celebrate the impulse and enjoy the feelings of connection, imagination, group enjoyment and comfort the Netflix fireplace brings. And realise, all over again, the amazing benefits that the power of story brings to you personally, your career, workplace, colleagues, and the health and well-being of us all.

If you’d like to harness the extraordinary power of story in your working life – in your business and teams, we’ll be pleased to talk. Find out more! Contact us.