Sep 6, 2023

The Allure of Stories with Raymond Mar & Jamie Tehrani (podcast)

Why are humans so hungry for stories? What's the relationship between fiction-reading and social cognition? Learn about the cultural evolution of stories, and how stories help humans flourish.

By Templeton Staff

Two researchers who study stories and the human mind are featured in this episode of Many Minds Podcast. Dr. Raymond Mar, Professor of Psychology at York University in Toronto explores various aspects of the psychology of stories, including the relationship between fiction reading and social cognition. Dr. Jamie Tehrani, Professor of Anthropology at Durham University in the UK researches the cultural evolution of stories.

"My research focuses on how culture evolves as it gets transmitted from person to person and from generation to generation," says Tehrani. "I am interested in understanding what makes some things catch on, others die out, and how these processes shape patterns of cultural diversity within and across populations." The podcast conversation highlights the significance of narrative storytelling in various forms of communication and its impact on engagement and memory. Mar shares his thoughts about why stories might be so powerful and long-lasting. He says, "Whenever you can introduce anecdote, introduce narrative, and relate more abstract concepts to individual experiences, you’re going to gather more attention. With attention comes better recollection. I think that that’s probably a key part of it. I think that trends that we’ve seen in journalism towards narrative journalism really do leverage this phenomenon." Listen in with the above player to hear the full conversation.

Many Minds podcast host, cognitive scientist, and writer Kensy Cooperrider introduces the episode:

"Once upon a time there was a king and a bishop…

No, I’m not actually going to tell you a story right now. I just wanted you to notice something: As I started into that, your mind likely shifted into a different mode. You might have started mentally salivating as you anticipated a coming morsel of fiction. That’s because stories are special; they work a kind of magic on us. Humans everywhere — in every known society, starting from a very young age — seem to hunger for narratives. But why? What makes them so palatable and powerful? What do they do to us and for us?

This week I’m joined by two guests who research stories and the human mind. The first is Dr. Raymond Mar, Professor of Psychology at York University in Toronto. His work explores a bunch of different aspects of the psychology of stories, including the relationship between fiction reading and social cognition. My second guest is Dr. Jamie Tehrani, Professor of Anthropology at Durham University in the UK. His research examines the cultural evolution of stories, including questions about why certain stories spread and stick around (sometimes for millennia).

In this conversation, Raymond, Jamie, and I talk about why stories are so powerful. We discuss what makes something a story, and what makes something a good story. We talk about findings that reading fiction may boost our ability to understand other minds. We consider the origins and diversification of folktales by zooming in on one in particular — Little Red Riding Hood. We talk about why stories are easier to remember than essays, and we examine a few of the ingredients that make certain stories especially memorable. Finally, spoiler alert: we also do a bit of good old-fashioned story time.

This is an episode that has been on our wish list forever. Over the past few years there’s been so much buzz about stories and storytelling — both in popular media and across different academic disciplines — we thought the topic deserved an extended treatment."

Image via The New York Public Library.


Play the full episode with the above player.

Learn more about Templeton World Charity Foundation's Diverse Intelligences priority.


Templeton World Charity Foundation's Diverse Intelligences is a multiyear, global effort to understand a world alive with brilliance in many forms. Its mission is to promote open-minded, forward-looking inquiry in animal, human, and machine intelligences. We collaborate with leading experts and emerging scholars from around the globe, developing high-caliber projects that advance our comprehension of the constellation of intelligences.

Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI), made possible through a grant from TWCF to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The Many Minds podcast is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with help from Assistant Producer Urte Laukaityte. Creative support is provided by DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster. Artwork featured as the podcast badge is by Ben Oldroyd.