Human beings are pattern seekers. Terry Pratchett and Ian Stewart also wrote in their “Science of Discworld II” a theory that I’ve always thought rung very true – human beings are not so much “Homo Sapiens” as “Pan Narrans”. We are not the wise ape as much as we are the story telling ape.
DP over at Dad Poet wrote about where inspiration comes from, and it made me think. Instead of answering in his comment field, I thought I’d write a post about it, and go into some detail about what I think.
All our wisdom and learning and insights come from stories. Stories have a pattern: a beginning, a middle, and an end. Nearly everything we do, in thought or action, is a story or in the service of a story. It can be a horror-story or a redemption-story, but it’s always a story.
Our thoughts, actions and wants are always subservient to a story. It can be the personal narrative of how a somewhat awkward seventeen year old in England will become the “voice of a generation” and have everyone read his thoughts and words. Or it can be the man that sacrifices everything for Queen and Country, even his morals. We have stories that we tell ourselves, that give us a place in the world and in our social groups.
When we don’t have that story, and when we haven’t found our story yet, that’s when the disconnects happen. So, story is so important to every human being that is alive, and who has ever existed going back to the stone age and the wall paintings in places like Lascaux. Like Ian Stewart and Terry Pratchett said at the end of the “Science of Discworld”: The stories we’ve got have brought us a long way. Plenty of creatures are intelligent but only one tells stories. That’s us: Pan narrans. And what about Homo sapiens? Yes, we think that would be a very good idea.
The very core of a human being are the stories. We start babies off with stories as soon as they are born, and it continues into adult life. Whole lifespans are determined by the narratives of their path. Is is a cautionary tale, or a source of inspiration? Is it a failure, or a transcendence? Everything we do is language, narrative, clever use of words, beginnings and middles and ends.
Is it then any wonder that our brains are wired for it? That it sees the universe in the shape of a story? That there is this absolute need to know of a beginning, as well as an end? And that it throws up scenarios that form the specific bits of our nature that we call entertainment?
I don’t see that inspiration is such a mystery. It’s not a big secret, and there are no fairies sitting invisible just waiting to sprinkle dust into our minds to get it to do what it’s built for, seeking patterns with a beginning and a middle and an end. It seems to me that the reason we are here is because our minds spots something in the corner of the eye, and then try to make a story out of it.
On the other hand, inspiration is a big mystery that I don’t have an explanation for, beyond this vague ‘we have evolved that way’. Sometimes you don’t need to understand everything either. The human mind has evolved for millions and millions of years to do pattern-seeking and story-telling really well, and a lot of that is instinctual and happens without direct intervention from our conscious minds. I’m happy to leave it at that. In fact, that fills me with a sense of awe.