Is there a genetic reason humans have such strong enjoyment of stories?

Humans are extremely interested in listening and watching stories, almost to the point of obsession. Most adults spend hours a day watching TV, reading books, going to movies, etc. And it starts very early in our lives. Even babies exhibit this behavior. They are almost hypnotic when listening to stories and watching TV. It doesn’t even have to involve communication, as stories can just be acted out silently and children are still interested. It doesn’t seem like it’s a learned behavior, as it is common in all societies, and even babies seem naturally drawn to stories. Is there a known genetic reason humans are like this?

I saw there was a gene (FoxP2) that is responsible for our ability to make multi-syllabic sounds. If that gene is damaged, then that person would struggle with longer words. Many mammals and birds also have this gene. If scientists damage that gene, then the mating songs of those animals will be made up of short, choppy sounds and will be less melodic. Scientists think this gene is important in our ability to have rich communication. It made me wonder if there’s a similar gene that plays a part in how much humans enjoy stories.

Personally, I think this behavior of enjoying stories is reason for humanities success. We can gain so much useful information through stories. The earliest communities probably acted out tales about hunting, which ended up teaching the rest of the group how to hunt. It also was a great bonding experience to bring the community together. The fact that we enjoy listening to someone else talk is a huge factor in creating a strong bond with another person. If we didn’t gain so much enjoyment from these kinds of experiences, I don’t think humans would be anywhere nearly as developed as we are now.

I think you have it here.

“A gene” for a complex structure or behavior is rather simplistic and rarely if ever true, but all of our behaviors are tied to the structure and chemestry of our brains, so of course it is genetic. Not to the level of liking detective stories vs. paranormal romance vs. westerns, but at the level of “humans find stuff interesting” it has to be genetic.

Narratives certainly give structure to basic organizing principles behind human tribal structures. The oldest surviving narrative in Western literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, has all essential elements political rule in pre-Athenian democracy, including the soveriegnty to rule based on leadership and “moral strength” (in many traditions assumed to be divinely endowed or derived), obligation to protect subjects from external threats, need for challenge and expansion is the health of a state, et cetera. Such narratives offer a rationale for people to subordinate themselves to authority, or alternatively to oppose a dysfunctional authority. Virtually all relgious texts are essentially allegorical stories written to present the moral structure of the tenets of the religion (albeit often self-contradictory and confused in the case of religions that are a patchwork of ideals and beliefs from different traditions and societies).

I would be hesitant to ascribe a specific genetic component to storytelling insofar as we have little understanding of cognition from a genetic standpoint beyond pathological problems (genetic defects resulting in cognitive and developmental problems) but it is clear that human-level intelligence and communication are crucial in constructing and conveying narrative structures. Your dog or pet chimp may be smart in a functional sense, but he’s never going to read, much less write, poetry or prose no matter how much you train or expose them. The utility in narratives in conveying ideas beyond purely functional skills like tool-making or fire-making is without question, and it is this, more than any other feature, that separates us from other animals.


The thing I find interesting is the ability of stories (particularly in the form of movies) to elicit emotions as strong as things happening to you in real life. I’ve probably cried more in regards to fiction than anything that’s ever happened to me (or pretty close).

I know people get criticized for not being able to suspend disbelief, but being able to do it at* that* level by make-believe is fascinating.

Since we all love narratives, I assume there has to be a genetic component. Perhaps, it is really a side-effect of the whole language thing. It might surprise some of you to know that even mathematics papers have (or ought to have) a narrative thread if they are to be readable. I have a collaborator who writes terribly and I have to rewrite what he has written to make it into a narrative.

Story-telling seems to be pretty universal too. One thing I find amazing is how the same, or at least very similar, stories pop up in widely different cultures when there was no contact between them. Cinderella is a good example and seems to have originated in China, or at least that’s the earliest version known.

Yeh Shen is a version of what many historians believe was the original Cinderella story, predating European versions of Cinderella by over 1000 years. From Native Americans to Persians, and Africans the story of a downtrodden young girl being rescued by a magical being and marrying a prince seems to crop up everywhere. The Chinese version even has a slipper.

One might as well ask if there’s a genetic component to why we like music or dancing or telling jokes. Of course, since behavior is affected by our genetics, there is, but it’s certainly created by the interaction of many many genes. And all these things probably tie into enhancing social cohesion. Shared stories, songs, dances, and jokes help to create and strengthen bonds among human groups.

I think an important factor is story telling might be how motivating it can be when we get a positive response to our story. Fiction probably started off as someone just telling lies to build himself up and look good. As it turns out we tend to like a good story more than we care about how truthful it is. I also think passion and dedication is largely driven by validation we get through sharing our work. I agree that story telling played a very important part in mankinds success.

Many mating dances are kind of like story telling. The male does an elaborate dance and the female watches. That’s the basic structure for story telling. Perhaps this lead to our enjoyment of stories. Perhaps early chimps had mating rituals where they pantomimed crushing nuts and picking fruit to show they were good providers. Eventually males became more and more creative in their rituals and females would mate with the ones who were most creative, thus leading to a society that both likes to tell and listen to elaborate stories. Even today, women are drawn to men who are performers like actors and musicians. Maybe that’s leftover from the early mating rituals.

My curiosity about a ‘story gene’ was from when I heard about that FoxP2 gene for sounds. Originally it was discovered because there was a family where some of the members had trouble with long words. Scientists were able to figure out which defective gene those members had, and saw the same result in other animals for the same gene. So I was wondering if perhaps there are some humans who have no interest in stories. People who don’t watch TV, movies, read books, etc. If so, scientists might be able to study those people to find the ‘story gene(s)’ like the FoxP2 was for sound.

I think. that this is not a gene, but a psychological factor.

I remember reading once about how our memories worked. They stated that in order for us to “remember” something, it has to have a beginning, a climax, and an end.

So, you may not remember turning the living room light off before you went to bed last week. But, you will remember if you stubbed your toe as you were trying to turn the living room light off last week.

That might have something to do with it.

I’m just a layman, and my thoughts on this are just speculation, but humans are pattern finding machines. We love to find patterns in things- in sounds, in pictures, in behavior. It’s how we interact with and make sense of the world, it’s how our brains process information. When the pattern finding goes off kilter and starts finding patterns where none exist, we call it insanity.
Stories are just another aspect of this, like music, art, poetry, puzzles, and games. Stories make sense of the world, presenting a semblance of life with all the messy distractions and non-pattern stuff shorn away. Everything is a story is meaningful, one way or another.
That’s a very comforting thing, when you think about it.

The fact that it’s all so powerful and well defined in all humans makes me think there has to be a strong genetic reason for it. Assuming there is a genetic reason for it, what would a person be like if those genes were damaged? What characteristics would you imagine a person would have if they didn’t have this obsession with stories? Would they be interested in school, video games, TV, movies, music? I could see them interested in things that are related to base survival or related to some task they have to perform (e.g. fix their car), but would everything else be just a matter if they found the moment interesting? Like a dog noticing the TV when there’s a squirrel, would they only be interested in the content of the scene rather than the full arc of the story?

Human beings think in stories. We dream in stories. In a way we ARE stories.

Does anybody still know who Gregory Bateson was? He famously was once asked (this would be in the 1970’s or so), how we would know when the computer was actually able to think as a human being. He said: “The day when someone proposes a question to the computer, and the computer comes up with the message, “Let me tell you a story ….”

Saying there is a genetic component to the way we think in stories and are fascinated by stories is like saying there is a genetic component to being human.