Avalance of new SciAmMind articles

The new edition of Scientific American Mind has just appeared with a whole host of new freely-available articles available online covering the psychology of storytelling, gifted children, genius, animal intelligence, scent, smell and learning through error.

My favourite is the article on the psychology of storytelling and narrative, and why it could intricately bound up in the cognitive abilities we’ve developed to navigate the social world.

The article is quite wide ranging, dipping into anthropology, cognitive and evolutionary psychology to explore why stories are so central to cultures across the world.

Perhaps because theory of mind is so vital to social living, once we possess it we tend to imagine minds everywhere, making stories out of everything. A classic 1944 study by Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel, then at Smith College, elegantly demonstrated this tendency. The psychologists showed people an animation of a pair of triangles and a circle moving around a square and asked the participants what was happening. The subjects described the scene as if the shapes had intentions and motivations—for example, “The circle is chasing the triangles.” Many studies since then have confirmed the human predilection to make characters and narratives out of whatever we see in the world around us.

But what could be the evolutionary advantage of being so prone to fantasy? “One might have expected natural selection to have weeded out any inclination to engage in imaginary worlds rather than the real one,” writes Steven Pinker, a Harvard University evolutionary psychologist, in the April 2007 issue of Philosophy and Literature. Pinker goes on to argue against this claim, positing that stories are an important tool for learning and for developing relationships with others in one’s social group. And most scientists are starting to agree: stories have such a powerful and universal appeal that the neurological roots of both telling tales and enjoying them are probably tied to crucial parts of our social cognition.

Link to August 2008 SciAmMind.

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