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The Story of Story

The Story of Story

I ended my first post concluding that until we begin to understand film sound at a deeper level, we will not get it past the creative impasse it is stuck at right now. If you ask me, the first thing we need to do is to start thinking of film sound as a subsystem within a system rather than in terms of sound effects and music, the sole purpose of which is to add realism and emotion to the images.

A good way to start this process is by defining the system sound belongs to: the film. A film is a story told in pictures and sound. So far so good. But that leaves us with another question. What is a story? Not so easy to answer. Yet, this is the first question we need to address if we are to understand this concept of film sound as a subsystem and as a cinematic tool that takes on an active role in the process of narration.

Over 2000 years ago, Aristotle set the precedent in his Poetics for how story would be defined in Western culture. Most attempts today still revolve around the same type of questions: is it action, character, plot, conflict, form, content…?

I spent some time delving into such questions, and I gained some interesting insights, but unfortunately, they proved to be almost (not entirely) futile when it came to grasping the cinematic role of film sound. I decided to look somewhere else, and I found the answer in a somewhat unexpected place: evolution.

The main force behind evolution is natural selection. This is the process by which a behavioural, physical, or physiological genetic mutation either makes it into the permanent genetic make-up of a species or dies away. The selective criteria is simple: Does the mutation give an organism a competitive advantage that makes it more capable of adapting to its environment and fitter to survive it? Yes? Pass. No? Out.

From an evolutionary point of view, stories are a behavioural adaptation. It follows then that they must have given us some sort of adaptive advantage. They have. And this advantage holds not only the key to understanding what makes a good story, and therefore a good film (I will talk about this in another post), but it also provides very important clues to the cinematic potential of film sound. So, let’s dive right into the story of story.

Long before we could tell tales, we were a chimp-like species, much like any other. There was nothing remarkable about us. Then, one day, the story goes, a group of us were outcompeted by other apes and found ourselves having to find another way of foraging. Smart things that we are, in the process of solving this crisis, we invented a new way of cooperating: collaboration, which is similar to cooperation in that it requires the members of a group to work together towards achieving a goal but with a number of important differences.

Cooperation involves working together towards the same goal, but ultimately, participants do it for their own benefit. In the case of chimps, for instance, if teaming up and cooperating with another chimp makes it more likely for them to achieve their aim, then they’ll go along with it, but essentially, they prefer to acquire and eat their food alone if the circumstances allow for it.

With collaboration, however, our thinking became geared toward figuring out ways to coordinate our actions with that of others in order to achieve a joint goal that had been pre-agreed (cooperation lacked this element of predetermination).

To us today, this may not seem like a big deal, but back then, it was a revolutionary way of doing things that required us to push our cognitive skills to the limit. We had to develop the ability to form shared goals, to assign each member of the group an individual task, and to understand how both our own task and that of the others fit within the scheme of things. Then we had to focus our joint attention on the same aim and synchronise our actions in order to achieve our goal. This behaviour was so radically different that it led to us splitting from the chimp lineage and becoming an altogether new species: the human race.

In itself, this was not enough to turn us into what we eventually became, which is the most successful species on earth. It allowed us to form slightly larger societies than other species, but that was about it. The true evolution would come about some few thousand years later, with a rare mutation in the brain that gave us the capacity for story.

Before this mutation happened, our brain was modular in nature. That is, it had separate modules to process different aspects of the environment. There was one module for inanimate objects, one for artefacts, one for animals, one for members of the same species, and so on. Our brain also had modules with dedicated types of intelligence designed to solve specific problems. For instance, it had a technical intelligence for building tools, such as a hammer or a knife, and a social intelligence for making sense of things like facial expressions.

These intelligences were pre-programmed by evolution to obey the rules of the natural world and they could not be consciously changed or controlled. A lot of brains still work like this. A bird, for example, cannot consciously decide to change the way it goes about building its nest since the process is hardwired into its brain.

Having such brain structure meant that we could only process the environment literally. Animals were animals, people were people, flowers were flowers, and ice was ice. There was a fire here and a lion there. Although we had the capacity to have imaginative thoughts within each module – we could imagine that if we hit something with a hammer it might break – we could not bring knowledge from one module to another. This was because there were no neural networks connecting them that could provide such cross-over of information.

Then, this magic mutation changed the wiring of the brain, causing the separate modules to be able to communicate with one another. Thus, the story of how metaphor, fantasy, and wild imagination were born, and how we went from, “Careful! Lion there!” to, “Once upon a time, there lived in a land far, far away a man with a lion’s head, surrounded by the flames of eternal fire. His wife, who had eyes blue like the sky, and was beautiful like a flower, but had snakes for hair, spent her days spinning the fates of the inhabitants of this land.”

To see this in action, you only have to visit the section of any Natural History Museum holing objects dated from 35,000 years ago. There, you’ll find practical utensils like spears, cups, hammers and so on. Skip forward a couple of thousand years or so and you’ll start finding more bizarre things, like the 33,000-year-old lion-headed man carving from Hohlenstein Stadel in Germany.

Anyone with a bit of common sense would have bet that such a futile and potentially dangerous behavioural feature alone would have been enough to bring our entire species to an end – daydreaming in the caveman days does not sound like a wise thing to do. But for some strange reason, that wasn’t the case. On the contrary. Not only did our fellow Neanderthals, who didn’t develop this capacity for telling stories about peoples and places that didn’t exist, start disappearing at an alarming rate from this point on, but we also started living in larger and larger settlements.

What happened was that stories allowed us to invent narratives about our past that gave us a sense of belonging together. Because our bonds were built on a mental ground, there were no limits to how many people these bonds could unite in one single stroke. Compared to our other fellow ape species, who still had to rely on one-to-one grooming to build trust among each other, this represented a big advantage. It meant we could build infinitely bigger communities, achieve more together, and protect each other more efficiently.

We could also imagine stories about the future, better worlds where the problems we faced had been eradicated. We could imagine the values, beliefs, and behaviours that made such worlds possible.

Something very interesting is happening here. On one side, we have a newly-acquired set of cognitive abilities that allow us to form shared goals, to focus our collective attention on them, and to synchronise our actions in order to achieve them. On the other, we have the newly-acquired ability to imagine other worlds and the behaviours required for them to exist.

When we attend to a story collectively, our minds unite and become tuned to the same scenario. The story triggers in us the same thoughts, emotions and learning experiences.

If we put the two skills together, shared intentionality and story, what we get is the ability to synchronise our collective beliefs, values, and behaviours so as to bring our imagined worlds into existence. And that’s just what we did. The outcome? The creation of a new human-made environment: the social domain.

One thing about this new environment is that it is a lot more unforeseeable than the physical and biological habitats we had been inhabiting so far. In the physical realm, we can be sure that the sun will rise in the morning and set in the evening. In the biological realm, we can safely bet that a hungry lion will make lunch of us or that a poisonous mushroom will make us ill at best. It is not so easy, however, to guess what folk with complex psychological computations dictating their behaviour will do next. And that’s what this new environment did to us. It turned us into highly unpredictable and often cunning creatures difficult to figure out.

No need to worry. We had stories, and they turned out to be the solution to the very problem they had created. They became invaluable tools for helping us learn to navigate this new complex social world. Through stories, we could learn the values, attitudes and behaviours that would help us function in our societies or we could explore new behaviours and their consequences. We could also use stories to sharpen our ability to make inferences from and scrutinise other minds – their inner worlds, expectations, intentions, and motivations. This, in turn, would help us make better decisions and adjust our behaviours accordingly, so as to get the best possible outcome.

That’s precisely why stories got the thumbs-up from natural selection. They increased our capability to adapt to our environment. They made us more suitable to survive this new cognitive niche we had just moved into.

One word that sums up very well the adaptive role of stories is LEARNING, but learning with a twist.

Biologically speaking, learning is the process by which information about the environment is stored in our nervous system as memories. It is an essential adaptation for any creature to be able to survive. The only problem is that for learning to take place, we must have some form of direct experience with the environment, something that comes with its risks. What if we don’t survive the experience?

That’s where the twist comes in. Stories provide us with an effective means for learning about the environment and for expanding our repertoire of beneficial behaviours without putting ourselves at risk. They allow us to learn, not through direct experience, but through SIMULATION.

It is when we look at story and film from that perspective – as a simulation of the social world rather than in terms of plot or character – that the cinematic role of sound slowly begins to reveal itself. In actual fact, the whole concept of filmmaking takes on a fresh dimension.

Simulation, therefore, will be the subject of my next blog post.