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The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005 Second Web Papers On Serendip

Memory of the Storyteller

Jennifer Gerfen

Human beings possess the ability to interpret and tell stories about their surroundings. They are able to communicate these stories from the present and the past internally through the process of memory. Memory is not a unique trait for humans, though they have a broader ability to communicate their memory with others. Humans and other similar organisms have developed the neocortex, which is a part of the brain that facilitates more advanced thought, which leads to the ability to comprehend the environment as a storyteller and for the purposes of memory. It has been argued that the storytelling ability comes directly from the neocortex interpreting signals from the rest of the brain.

There are two main types of memory for humans implicit and explicit memory. It is the explicit memory that is generally thought of, since it is memory that one thinks of as conscious memory or rational memory. Implicit memory by contrast is memory that can not be recalled such as the knowledge of certain tasks. The hippocampus, a part of the midbrain, and the interaction of the medial temporal lobe of the cortex are necessary for proper explicit memory. (1)

Combining the idea of stories being interpretations of signals from the lower parts of the brain and the role of the midbrain in memory there is the complication of what exactly is remembered. If the memory is stored in the neocortex then it would follow that every time someone recalls a single memory the neocortex is reinterpreting the signal; however, memories are relatively unchanged through time. This would suggest that identical signals would be treated with similar stories from the neocortex.

Humans interpret memory from signals sent to the neocortex in the form of stories. It is in these stories that humans are able to know the past and learn how to act in the future. The ability to see a story allows for the person to know see different outcomes and know whether how to respond to a stimulus. Internal stories are important for the idea of free will that people take for granted. Without knowledge of an internal story of what might happen due to a specific choice there would not be the same idea of free will.

It is then important to determine whether animals are able to make the same conscious decisions and whether they are able to tell stories. Various animals have shown to possess the ability for learning and memory. Bees have the ability to learn and remember stimulus such as the distance and location of food through long term potentiation in their brains. (2) Bees do not have the signals reinterpreted in any feature of the brain similar to the neocortex. There are species more similar to the human, which do have a necortex, even if not as the human.

If the story told by the neocortex is always similar then it would follow that it is merely the presence of the neocortex might be enough for a species to be a "storyteller". There are experiments in animal models that demonstrate the importance of the hippocampus and the neocortex in memory. This shows that there is at least some neocortex activity, though there is no evidence as to whether animals are storytellers. Humans are not the only species to demonstrate the ability for the tasks of learning and memory.

The issue becomes when storytelling developed within the neocortex. Animal models demonstrate that the neocortex is needed for monkeys to control their emotion and behave in a "rational" manner. (3) The monkey appears to be in more control with the neocortex, signifying that there is some sort of function that helps to prevent more primitive behavior. This does not show that the monkey is given able to tell stories or to possess free will, but rather that the monkey has a higher brain function.

A higher brain function might be problematic if humans are trying too hard to anthropomorphize animals that are evolutionarily similar to them. It is possible for humans to think about memory in terms of storytelling; in fact humans are able to understand memory through the process of storytelling. The understanding of memory without storytelling is difficult because it is so foreign. There is evidence that learning and memory exist prior to storytelling, and that the neocortex begins to be associated with the processing at some point, but identifying the origin of storytelling remains a problem.


(1) Larry Squire (1992) Memory and the Hippocampus: A Sythesis From Findings With Rats, Monkeys, and Humans. Psychological Review 99:195-231.
(2) Martin Hammer and Randolf Menzel (1995) Learning and Memory In the Honeybee. Journal of Neuroscience 15: 1617-1630.
(3)Heinrich Klüver and Paul C. Bucy (1939) Preliminary analysis of functions of the tempral lobes in monkeys. Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry 42:979-1000.

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