This is a common phrase a friend and I use when we see something or someone unusual.
And the truth is our brains “ain’t right” in the sense that they have been changed, co-opted, adapted in a way that distorts the brain’s functions, but makes us more human.
In the Prelude to “The Weirdest People In The World”, Joseph Heinrich describes the
changes to our brains, specifically the brain’s left ventral occipito-temporal
region, the corpus callosum, and the prefrontal cortex (now say that three
times fast), all of this to reduce our facial recognition and holistic visual ability
in favor of analytical processing, on language, speech, words. It allows us to
deconstruct the world around us instead of seeing it in broad holistic, systemic,
We can form a gestalt of our surroundings, but we have come to rely more on the component
parts, assembled into scenes and motifs to make sense of our world and
ourselves. One of the most common ways we assemble these components and motifs
is into what we call stories.
We have been telling stories as long as there have been people, using language for
possibly 50,000 to 2 million years. We used symbols possibly 9,000 years ago as
seen in the caves of Chauvet, in modern day France. Egyptian hieroglyphs have
been around since around 3,000 BC and the earliest written stories of the Iliad
and Gilgamesh are from around 700 BC.
As we adapted our brains to not see the world ‘as is’ but to reduce it to components,
to rebuild those components into something to act upon, we needed another way
to see the world. We needed a set of shared beliefs to build into something
that makes sense, a set of short-hand ideas that put together make the whole
understandable, relatable and sharable.
So, why do we tell stories? Early language probably helped with transmitting skills such
as tool making, or warning of danger. We use language to pass on information
and knowledge, of ourselves, our culture and the world around us. Language
helps us understand and improve ourselves. And it helps us to impact the world
around us through our shared beliefs.
Alan Dundes, University of California, Berkeley, spoke of folklore, a form or
storytelling, as our unconscious desires and anxieties; “Two or more persons
who have any trait in common and express their shared identity [do so] through
Stories make our brains work on a different level, as a story teases, surprises,
assembles, emotes and animates characters, while it entertains and enlightens us.
Stories fill us with the possibilities, the hope and understanding of the world
around us, it helps contain our fears, and build a shared community of
But stories are not static. They impart an understanding from teller to listener, from
writer to reader, through a shared understanding that reverberates, that
resonates that understanding, from one person to the next. Like a bow vibrating
a string, the sound carries to all in the vicinity and impacts each
individually but in a similar way, and then there is an impact among those
sharing the sound. A powerful story has resonance and impact. Even small
stories have impact, like the ripples on a pond carried to the shore, or the
butterfly wings flapping in Madagascar that create a storm in the Caribbean.
Stories do not just help us understand ‘what is’, they show us what ‘can be’, who
can be. Even the darkest fiction, the most dystopian, apocalyptic future-scape
shows us who we are as individuals and as a people, showing us how to be human.
And the resonance of the ‘how to be’, the shared beliefs, shape our culture.
They help us become more than what we are today.
Stories are the catalyst of our future humanity. We are always the butterfly unfolding from
the chrysalis, a metamorphosis through story.
The human brain has adjusted to the need and power of language over time. We have
sacrificed some abilities for the power of story. It is important to feed and
exercise that power, to shape our future.
So if you are reading this, your brain ain’t right, and that’s OK. Read on fellow human.