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Our obsession with a narrative

As humans, we have a natural fixation on storytelling. We take in information more readily when it is presented to us in the form of a story or with some sort of structure, we are always trying to look for patterns in things, and we like to try and make links and connect different events even when there isn’t actually a link (something the media has been known to play on…).

Why is this the case?

Well, in evolutionary terms, it is advantageous for us to make links between things, and what is a story, if not links between chronological events?. If a person ate a mouldy piece of fruit and later became unwell, and no one ever made any connection between these two events, then we probably would not have lasted very long as a species (for a more detailed description of this phenomenon, have a read at The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuition Deceives Us by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons [1]).

We tend to connect more with a piece of art when we hear the story behind it, or when we see a story within it. I have known for a long time that I much prefer to paint an image based on a natural composition rather than a posed source image. In other words, if I’m drawing or painting a person, I really don’t like using a source photo where they are just smiling for the camera. When we look at a piece of artwork, we often think about what we can say about it - can we describe it like a story? If it’s a posed portrait, we may be able to pull out observations about choices the artist has made and what has and has not been included, but there is a limit as to how much we can say about what is actually happening in the painting (essentially, all that is actually happening is that there is a subject posing for a portrait).

Compare this with a capture of a moment in time that happened naturally. There’s so much more going on that we can talk about, and plenty to ponder regarding events that may have led up to that moment taking place, what happened afterwards, and what reasons there were for capturing that particular point in time - what did it mean?

We love a story and a clear and consistent pattern, but we love a bit of mystery and intrigue mixed in too…

  1. Chabris C and Simons D. The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuition Deceives Us. HarperCollins Publishers, 2011.

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