Quirks & Quarks

What connects Filipino hunter-gatherers and Hitchcock? The power of a good story

A new study out in the Nature Communications journal shows stories not only serve to pass information to future generations — they can also bind groups together, increase cooperativeness and promote egalitarianism.
Scientists have discovered that stories serve an evolutionary purpose: to coordinate social behaviour. (Pixabay)

Once upon a time…

All you had to do was read those four words for your brain to know it's story time. Stories are integral to the way we pass down information, but they can serve all sorts of purposes.

A new study out in the journal Nature Communications shows stories also bind groups together, increase cooperativeness, and promote egalitarianism. In hunter gatherer societies, this all serves an evolutionary purpose: to make groups work better together.

Dr. Daniel Smith from the University College London led the study that he was doing for his PhD, which began with a hunter gatherer society in the Philippines known as the Agta. "My original project to go out there was just to look at cooperation more generally — to see who individuals … cooperated with. Part of that involved getting reputational measures, so you know: Who are the best fishers? Who are the best hunters? And who are the best gatherers? Because food sharing is an everyday occurrence in these hunter gatherer societies, including the Agta, we are expecting to find that people would want to live with and cooperate with the best foragers because they bring food back into camp."

Scientists used a movie by Alfred Hitchcock to detect conscious awareness in a vegetative man who'd been non-responsive for 16 years. (Pixabay)

As a control, Smith also looked at other measures of cultural reputation, like who had the best medicinal knowledge or who were the best storytellers. To get that data, the researchers asked nearly 300 Agta society members in 18 separate camps to name the best storytellers.

"It was only really once we got back from the field and started analyzing the data that we found that the Agta overwhelmingly wanted to live with these storytellers. So skilled storytellers were were twice as likely to be nominated as unskilled storytellers. And this was even larger than the effect of wanting to live with the best foragers."

Telling stories to increase cooperation within the group

The researchers, with local help on the ground, gathered a number of stories that Agta elders tell the children and each other.

Here's one: "There is a dispute between the sun, who is male, and the moon, who is female, to illuminate the sky. And after a fight, the moon proves to be as strong as the sun. They agree in sharing the duty — one in a day and the other at night."

The researchers discovered common themes running through many of the Agta people's stories, like egalitarianism and cooperation. The Agta people are a hunter gatherer society in the Philippines. (Daniel Smith)

Smith says that story promotes equality between the sexes. When they looked at all the rest of the stories they told, overwhelmingly, there were certain themes running through them, like egalitarianism and cooperation.

Here's another one of their stories: "A wild pig and a sea cow were best friends and always raced each other for fun, but the sea cow injured his legs and could not run any more. The wild pig was unhappy and carried the sea cow to sea where they could race each other again — the pig on the land and the sea cow in the sea."

That story, Smith says, "portrays norms of friendship and cooperation, as well as what's termed 'advantageous inequality.' [It's] essentially helping those in need, so that you don't have any advantage over other individuals who are less needy than you. It's a way of promoting egalitarianism and equality within the community."

Smith and his colleagues wanted to see if these story themes are also found in other hunter gatherer societies, so they collected 89 stories from seven different hunter gatherer groups in Southeast Asia and Africa. They found the majority of their stories were also about coordinating social behaviour.

Telling stories is one thing. The researchers wanted to see what effect telling these stories had on behaviour, so they devised a game. "It's a very simple cooperative game where each individual shared a picture of himself along with the other campmates. They were given a number of tokens representing rice. For each token, they were asked firstly whether they'd like to keep the rice for themselves or to give it to somebody else, and secondly, if they decided to give [the rice] to somebody else, who was this person? From this, we were able to establish how much individuals shared and who they shared these resources with. We found that in camps with a greater number of storytellers, these camps were more corporative, so it suggests that the storytellers do spread these norms around these camps and it does have an actual effect on behaviour."

The hunter gatherer Agta people tell a story about the sun and the moon, which promotes the idea of equality between sexes. (Paulo Sayeg)

Not only that, but the researchers also discovered it was advantageous, in a reproductive sense, to become a good storyteller.

"We also found the individuals who are the best storytellers had higher reproductive success than those who were less skilled storytellers. So this suggests that there is a reproductive advantage to being a skilled storyteller," said Smith.

The power of stories to reach people who cannot communicate

So there is an evolutionary reason why we love and tell stories today. We humans have a long history of storytelling across cultures. Now scientists are hoping to use our innate love of good stories to reach into people's minds who otherwise cannot communicate.

Dr. Lorina Naci from Trinity College Dublin got the idea when she was at the University of Western Ontario that perhaps stories could be a way to detect conscious awareness in vegetative patients. "I felt that narratives have this amazing power to pull us in and create an immersive experience that engages us in a very natural way — in the same way as the real world does. I wanted to capitalize on this because patients with brain injuries have a lot of difficulty paying attention and responding to arbitrary instructions. I thought, if I could show [them] something that was naturally engaging and intriguing, I might be able to pull out their natural attention and their ability to think about the world that just comes natural to them."

Naci decided to use a portion of Alfred Hitchcock's movie Bang! You're Dead to try and get the attention of vegetative patients. The movie is about a girl who finds her uncle's gun, thinks it's a toy, loads it, and walks around pointing it at people like she's going to fire.


The first thing she did was to show the movie to healthy volunteers while they were in a brain scanner. "What I saw is that this movie pulled in and engaged in a highly synchronized way, so very similar across different people — brain areas that are implicated in high-level thought and consciousness in the frontal parietal cortex. What I could see is that everybody, all the healthy individuals, behaved very much the same. They have the same brain activity pattern over the eight minutes and this was very tightly interlinked to the evolution of the suspense in the short movie over time. I thought that this might be a really good template for then looking at if [the] brain [of a vegetative patient] behaved as every healthy individual's."

She tested her new technique on two vegetative patients. Those are people who do not respond to bedside commands and appear to lack awareness of themselves and of their environment. One patient's brain showed no response. But according to Naci, the other patient's brain — who had been behaviourally non-responsive for 16 years — showed the same pattern of brain activity synchronized over time with that of every healthy individual.

"Moreover, his brain activity reflected the suspense that healthy individuals felt on a moment to moment basis as the plot unfolded — suggesting that he not only was consciously aware and understood the movie, but he was also able to feel suspense and follow the plot over the course of eight minutes."

By seeing how this vegetative patient's brain responded to the movie, Naci says they can make inferences about other higher order capacities his brain would be capable of. "For example, the ability to have theory of mind, which is to infer the mental state of other individuals, which is what is needed especially in a suspenseful movie where you have to infer what other people are thinking — this is what the suspense plays upon — and also the capacity to make moral significant decisions. What we saw when the gun, for example, was pointing at the mother, the brain activity — similar to healthy individuals — was much stronger than it was when [the gun] was pointed at other individuals in the movie. Therefore, this shows that there was a distinction of moral relevance and significance in the patient's mind as it would be for every healthy individual. Moreover, to experience suspense we have to put ourselves in future states and try and anticipate what's happening in the future, which led us to conclude that the patient not only had this ability, but also made us wonder whether the patient could be thinking about future states for himself and how he imagined his own life to be unfolding. It was very, very intriguing and exciting to be thinking about all these new capacities that we were able to uncover."

Detecting conscious awareness in otherwise non-responsive vegetative patients is just the beginning of where Naci is hoping to take this research. She has also started using the power of engaging stories to look for awareness in patients who might be in a coma or even at risk of waking up during surgery.

"What we hope [is] that with future technological developments, we can make sure that this is part of standard clinical monitoring. So doctors would be able to see on the screen whether markers of awareness are present, or whether the brain signal is really indicative of the individual being fully unconscious. Then they can respond appropriately to the situation as needed."

With a bit more research, Naci is hoping her technique of using compelling stories to pick up on conscious awareness will turn out happily ever after.

The end.