A writer offers a wide-ranging exploration of the nature and role of storytelling in human society and psychology.
In his book, Schrank takes a broad look at the many pivotal roles stories play in what he refers to as “Normalworld.” Tales, he contends, are the tools people use in their ongoing “Reality Construction Project.” They use stories to construct their shared reality and then explain it to themselves. This project is fundamental to human nature, the author argues: “This seemingly effortless ability to wing it, to make up a story on the fly, is part of our survival toolkit. We experience confabulations as reality, not as stories.” Schrank conceives of this faculty as a defining aspect of humans, who at all times make up and tell tales by instinct about everything (“We are all confabulists,” he writes). He maintains that when these stories diverge from actual reality, humans very often prefer to go on believing the tales instead. In the course of his book, he explores several of these stories and examines their reality versus their various confabulations. Delving into perception studies and visual cognition, he examines subjects ranging from popular political positions to widespread disinformation campaigns, always striving to differentiate between perception and storytelling. For example, he dissects what may be the most dramatic example of confabulation: the prevalence of conspiracy theories, where humans take what they know and use it to tell stories that explain what they don’t know. “Our perception,” he writes, “is a game of fill-in-the-blanks.”
Throughout the work, Schrank is a calm, methodical guide to subjects that often tend to raise readers’ hackles (his section on the nature of immigration in the United States, for instance, methodically differentiates between what Americans believe, what they’d like to believe, and what is actually true). His ruling contention is that humans “seek connections and patterns to use as building blocks in our story creation,” and he’s cleareyed about both the positives and the negatives of the phenomenon. One of the foremost negatives connected to serial confabulation is what’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect, in which people’s ignorance about a subject (based on the stories they tell themselves) has an inverse relationship to their confidence about that same topic. As Schrank puts it, “Incompetence masks the ability to recognize the incompetence.” The omnivorous nature of his curiosities is the book’s most consistently surprising and enjoyable element; he can move with ease from investigating the nature of acoustics (and audio illusions) to the human tendency to invest all kinds of inanimate objects and processes with personalities. These and other subjects (whether or not plants feel pain, for instance) take on new elements of interest when examined through the lens of storytelling. And throughout the volume, the author is mindful of the perils inherent in this habit of spinning yarns. “The more an answer feels right to you, the more certain you are of its correctness,” he writes in one of his many reflections on the insidious process of confirmation bias. “We use this feeling of rightness as evidence of accuracy.” Storytellers of all kinds will be captivated by every page.
A shrewd and comprehensive study of the importance of reality construction in human life.