8 Longreads by Will Storr on the Science of Storytelling

Author Will Storr (Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert / Getty Images)

“People change, don’t they?” journalist and author Will Storr asks at the beginning of an Aeon essay called “Plot Twist.” That question has been at the heart of Storr’s writing for years now, a question he carries with him throughout so many of his investigations into science, belief, and the human impulse to tell stories.

Storr has a knack for starting with a simple statement that anyone can intuitively understand, then revealing how deceptive both simplicity and intuition can be. Storr’s willingness to challenge even his most basic assumptions appears most often in his stories as curiosity, which he brings anew to all of his conversations with sometimes desperate story subjects who find themselves facing some of life’s most serious consequences.

“Storr’s writing creates empathy and understanding,” BuzzFeed News’ deputy editor-in-chief Virginia Hughes wrote six years ago in her recommendation of Storr’s piece, “The Itch Nobody Can Scratch,” as one of the best science stories of 2014. As Longreads’ Soraya Roberts noted in her column on makeover scenes, “Will Storr encapsulates the more complicated reality of self-improvement: It’s not always clear what you should adjust (if you should at all), it’s a lifetime of work, and in the end, you aren’t actually transformed — but you are living more honestly.”

Storr has written extensively for The Guardian, The Sunday Times, The New Yorker, and The New York Times, producing stories that have been recognized by the Association for International Broadcasting, One World Media, and Amnesty International. In addition to being an accomplished ghostwriter, Storr has written five books under his own name: one novel, The Hunger and the Howling of Killian Lone, and four nonfiction books, including Selfie: How the West Became Self-Obsessed, Will Storr vs. the Supernatural: One Man’s Search for the Truth about Ghosts, and The Unpersuadables: Adventures with the Enemies of Science.

Storr’s latest book, arriving in bookstores March 10, is called The Science of Storytelling. Building on material he presents in his popular storytelling workshops, Storr offers a new guide to creative writing that explores how the brain responds to stories. “We’ve been telling stories about the nature of each other’s characters for tens of thousands of years,” Storr writes in an excerpt on the science of binge-watching and the allure of antiheroes. “Watching a selfless character being treated selfishly is a drug of enchantment for the storytelling brain. We can’t help but care.”

Below are some of my favorite longreads by Storr from around the web. In these eight essays and excerpts, Storr articulates and challenges some of our strongest-held beliefs about storytelling, progress, certainty, and doubt.

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1. Plot Twist (September 2014, Aeon)

In a fascinating essay on redemption narratives, Storr breaks down how our minds cope with unfathomable levels of input by telling stories to help us make sense of our lives. Those stories, however, are necessarily reductive.

“It seemed as though the brain,” Storr writes, “would do almost anything to maintain its feeling of control, even if that meant turning our selves and the plot of our lives inside out and upside down.”

We live, moment to moment, in an emotional reality of love, hate, feuds, sorrows and dreams. We spin seductive, reductive narratives of heroism and villainy, struggle and victory, to parse reality and give ourselves esteem and our lives meaning. Rituals help. We use them to place ourselves at particular plot-points in the story of our lives. They reinforce our tales, making us seem important and our journeys comprehensible. In the chaos of the daily world and our irrational behaviour within it, our brains conjure the illusion of order; they wrench a plot from the chaos and then place us heroically at its centre. And what heroes we are! A symphony of optimism biases soothe us into believing we’re smarter, better looking, more morally upright than we are. Primitive tribal instincts turn our enemies into ruthless ignorant baddies while our allies are crowned with undeserved haloes. As we push through the minutes of our lives, we’re all Davids fighting our own personal Goliaths. We’re seduced into believing in the autonomy and moral behaviour of our coherent and comprehensible selves.

2. The Itch Nobody Can Scratch (March 2014, Matter) 

During a longer conversation with Ann Finkbeiner about unreliable sources, Storr discusses how this Matter excerpt from The Unpersuadables, about patients who suffer from a controversial disease called Morgellons, touches on “how the stories we tell about the world, and our place within it, lead to irrationality.” Our longing for certainty can warp our interest in logic, but most of us struggle to square conflicting evidence or make sense of our own experiences.

“Rather than being dumb or nuts,” Storr says, “these are mostly people who have made honest mistakes. The people I tend to write about are usually far more wedded to their mistakes than the rest of us, of course. But, in the end, that’s all they are.”

I used to hold a fierce belief in binary love, of the kind that is promised in music, film and literature. You are in love, or you are not. They were absolute modes of being, like Christian or non-Christian, right or wrong, sane or insane. Today, my marriage is happy because I understand that true love is a mess. It is like my father’s belief in God: a journey, sometimes blissful, often fraught. It is not the ultimate goal that was promised by all those pop songs. It lacks the promise of certainty. But it is its very difficulties that give love its value. If you didn’t have to fight for it — if it was just there, reliable, steady, ever-present, like a cardboard box over your head — what would be its worth?

I used to expect love to be solid, sure, overpowering, decided. That is how we declare ourselves. When we get married, we promise faithfulness for ever. When priests talk about God, they say, “He exists.” When the Skeptics talk about homeopathy, they say, “There is no evidence.” When the medical establishment talk about Swami Ramdev’s pranayama, they say, “It doesn’t work”; when they judge Morgellons sufferers, they say, “They are delusional.”

But what if pranayama works like homeopathy works, by brilliantly triggering various powerful placebo effects? What if these Morgellons sufferers are crazy, but they have been driven to these ends by itching caused by a variety of undiagnosed conditions and rejection by lazy doctors?

3. Can You Think Yourself Into a Different Person? (November 2015, Mosaic Science)

Storr reviews the evolution in the general public’s understanding of neuroplasticity, asking scientists directly “whether the power of positive thinking has now gained scientific credibility.”

As the celebrity alternative-medicine guru Deepak Chopra has said, “Most people think that their brain is in charge of them. We say we are in charge of our brain.”

Debbie’s story is a mystery. The techniques promising to change her brain via an understanding of the principles of neuroplasticity have clearly had tremendous positive effects for her. But is it true that neuroplasticity is a superpower, like X-ray vision? Can we really increase the weight of our brain just by thinking? Can we lower our risk of dementia by 60 per cent? And learn to love broccoli?

Some of these seem like silly questions, but some of them don’t. That’s the problem. It’s hard, for the non-scientist, to understand what exactly neuroplasticity is and what its potential truly is. “I’ve seen tremendous exaggeration,” says Greg Downey, an anthropologist at Macquarie University and co-author of the popular blog Neuroanthropology. “People are so excited about neuroplasticity they talk themselves into believing anything.”

4. ‘It Was Quasi-Religious’: The Great Self-Esteem Con (June 2017, The Guardian)

In this adapted excerpt from Selfie, Storr’s skepticism about the power of positive thinking seeps back in as he uncovers “the recent history of self-esteem.”

As the months became years, the self-love movement spread. Defendants in drug trials were rewarded with special key chains for appearing in court, while those who completed treatment were given applause and doughnuts. Children were awarded sports trophies just for turning up; a Massachusetts school district ordered children in gym classes to skip without actual ropes lest they suffer the self-esteem catastrophe of tripping. Meanwhile, police in Michigan seeking a serial rapist instructed the public to look out for a thirtysomething male with medium build and “low self-esteem”.

The credibility of Vasco’s task force turned largely on a single fact: that, in 1988, the esteemed professors of the University of California had analysed the data and confirmed his hunch. The only problem was, they hadn’t.

5. Why Men Kill Themselves (May 2015, Mosaic Science, reprinted in Pacific Standard)

Four years before Stephen Rodrick published “All-American Despair” in Rolling Stone on the rise in white male suicides in America, Storr looked into the gender narratives that contribute to male suicides outnumbering female suicides in every country in the world. Storr notes that while it is also true, “in most Western countries, that more women attempt suicide than men,” more men actually die when a gendered rationale about masculine roles leads them to reach for deadlier methods. 

Surprisingly, how meaningful our projects are is thought to contribute to our well-being only slightly. What makes the crucial difference to how happy they make us is whether or not they’re accomplishable.

But what happens when our personal projects begin to fall apart? How do we cope? And is there a gender difference that might give a clue to why so many men kill themselves?

There is. It’s generally assumed that men, to their detriment, often find it hard to talk about their emotional difficulties. This has also been found to be true when it comes to discussing their faltering projects. “Women benefit from making visible their projects and their challenges in pursuing them,” Little writes, in his book Me, Myself and Us, “whereas men benefit from keeping that to themselves.”

6. ‘We Believe You Harmed Your Child’: The War Over Shaken Baby Convictions (December 2017, The Guardian) 

Here, Storr takes a page from the intersection of science writingcrime reporting, and wrongful conviction cases, investigating the disputed medical expertise at the heart of shaken baby convictions. (This story is also available as an audio episode.)

Despite the certainty with which police, hospital staff and their local authority treated Effie’s parents, the science that underpins shaken baby syndrome is anything but sure. In fact, questions about whether the triad of symptoms found in Effie’s scans are caused by abuse or other innocent events have seen medics, scientists and the police go to war. And it’s a war that is being played out in courtroom after courtroom – with the fate of the accused parents hanging on how well one expert or another happens to make their case.

7. How Radioactive Poison Became the Assassin’s Weapon of Choice (November 2013, Matter)

Storr tells the story of a Russian dissident who was murdered with radioactive poison: “At its height, says Volodarsky, the Soviet Union had the largest biological warfare program in the world.”

When someone says an atom is “heavy”, they mean that a large number of protons and neutrons are packed into its nucleus. And when a heavy element loses its balance, its search for stability can have dramatic consequences.

Uranium, one of the heaviest elements that occurs naturally, is a lumbering hulk. In its most common form, it has 238 particles crammed into the nucleus. And in its quest to find balance it spits out a lot of material.

As it throws out these chunks — cannonballs containing two protons and two neutrons, a combination known as an alpha particle — it cascades down the periodic table, transforming itself into a different element each time. Just before its arrival at lead-206, it becomes a substance called polonium-210. And it is at this point that the elements of science become the elements of murder.

8. What a Future Ruled by Predictive Technology Looks Like (December 2017, GQ)

“In a way, we’re all clairvoyants,” Storr writes in this deep dive on predictive technology. “Brains absorb information from their environment and use that information to build complex models of the world and the people in it. They then use those models to make predictions.”

How do you know you’re going to be hungry at 7pm? How do you know what your partner will say if you tell her you’re not coming home from the office tonight, but are instead hopping on a Jetstar flight to Surfer’s Paradise to empty the joint bank account? How do you come to an opinion about who’s going to win the next election, and to what effect? Or, how good Scorsese’s upcoming Pacino/De Niro/Pesci movie is going to be?

You’re able to make predictions about all these things because your brain contains a colossal amount of information about how the world has behaved in the past. It uses this information about the past to ‘see’ into the future.

But now, there’s a new additional brain – a fresh, impossibly complex mechanism that’s built out of information. It began being constructed by all of us in around 2008, the year after the launch of the iPhone, when social media started exploding.

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Catherine Cusick is a writer based in Austin, Texas and contributing audience editor at Longreads. You can find her on Twitter @CusickCatherine.