Surreal Synapses: Stories – The Miracle of the Creative Mind

“Narration created humanity.” ~ Pierre Janet

The unique ability of humans to weave fact and fantasy into stories may have elevated our species more than any other single factor during our time on Earth. It’s miraculous enough that we can mentally time travel in our own minds, but to be able to mentally time travel into other minds (and thanks to the written word, even in ones that are no longer with us), opens up an unparalleled panoply of experience, knowledge, wisdom and imagination that can benefit every person alive.

The Storyteller by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo c. 1773

The Storyteller by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo c. 1773

I would even suggest that the term ‘survival of the fittest’, first coined by Herbert Spencer and published by Darwin, (also referred to as ‘Natural Selection’ in evolutionary terms), should be upgraded to something like: survival of the finest and most prolific storytellers, or survival of the most imaginative!

The literary scholar John Niles postulated that our species, Homo Sapiens, should be renamed to Homo Narrans – the storytellers.

“Fiction is as important a truth as truth.” ~ Michael Morpurgo

The sharing of our ‘mind wanderings’ has opened up whole new worlds as we collectively meander through many epochs and countless lives. History as we know it is a collection of stories about the past.

We all share a common ancestral heritage – our forebears roamed the African Savannah during the Pleistocene Period, the last ‘Ice Age’, dating from as far back as 2.6 million years ago to the last 12,000 years, during which time modern humans evolved. Storytelling is literally in our DNA! Human connection is a neurobiological need and stories connect us in a powerful, compelling way.

Albert Anker Grossvater

Albert Anker Grossvater

Tribal wisdom about how to survive the harsh conditions and not be eaten by a sabre tooth tiger would have been important information to pass on, along with the hunter-gatherer experiences of foraging for food and useful items to use and keep us warm.

Cave paintings were the earliest non-verbal stories, before conventional language developed. It was perhaps the most important of our social skills, and was usually reserved for the elders and best orators of the tribe, to ensure that their younger members learnt the techniques of hunting and about their food sources. In this way stories of individuals became the experiences of a social group.

Aboriginal art from Carnarvon Gorge

Aboriginal art from Carnarvon Gorge

Indigenous Australians have told stories dating back 50,000 years, from their first arrival in Australia after their journey from Africa. Preliterate tales of discovery and heroism prevailed through gestures and the spoken word down through the generations, until the written word became a game changing moment in humanity’s evolution.

“Stories are just data with a soul.” ~ Dr. Brené Brown

Stories are so powerful that they can create cultural beliefs and bind people together. The Aboriginal Dreamtime is one such example, and many religions developed from stories. Who hasn’t heard of Adam and Eve?

We only have to look at enduring ancient myths and creation stories that still prevail today, either in their original form or retold with with a modern spin. Such tales are pervasive in cultures all over the world.

A Tales of The Decameron by John William Waterhouse

A Tale of The Decameron by John William Waterhouse

Stories kept us alive and helped us to thrive, and they are still doing the same today, albeit in a more sophisticated way.

Imaginary adventures stem from play – an attribute that tends to be discarded after childhood, but which is essential for learning and development. My children are oblivious to everything when they are at play, engrossed in their imaginations.

The importance of childhood fairy tales cannot be underestimated. Those beguiling opening words: Once upon a time…lead them onto adventures with elements of danger that they can experience in safety and a playful environment that may stand them in good stead when they encounter an actual fearful situation in real life.

Interesting Story by Laura Muntz Lyall

Interesting Story by Laura Muntz Lyall

Stories open up new possibilities that would take many years of painful experience to learn otherwise.

A great animation about why stories matter:


It is thought that vocal linguistics grew from gestural movements, naturally using arms, hands and facial expressions. Communities could come to agree on meanings, ensuring clarity in communication. Sign language is a perfect example of a conventionalised gestural language specifically for deaf communities.

A fascinating passage from The Wandering Mind by Michael  C. Corballis:

“The vocal calls of monkeys and apes are largely useless for storytelling. The hands, in contrast, are used in a flexible, intentional way, and seem almost custom-designed for conveying information about events. Indeed, the notion of grasping still seems embedded, if only metaphorically, in our very speech. The word grasp is itself often used to mean ‘understand’, if you grasp my meaning. Comprehend and apprehend derive from Latin Prehendre, ‘to grasp’: intend, contend and pretend derive from Latin tendere, ‘to reach with the hand’; we may press a point, and expression and impression also suggest pressing. We hold conversations, point things out, seize upon ideas, grope for words – if you catch my drift.”

It’s thought there are some 7,000 languages in use around the world, each with their own set of ‘rules’ or grammar. English is classified as an SVO language – Subject – Verb – Object, but the majority of languages, such as Latin, are SOV, placing the verb last. All six possible orders are to be found in mankind’s numerous languages, the rarest of which are OSV languages, of which 4 are known: the Warao in Venezuela, Nadëb in Brazil, Wik Ngathana in north-eastern Australia, and Tobati in West Papua, New Guinea.

No matter how a language is structured it is a device that enables the teller to set a scene or an event in a time and place and tell stories of complexity limited only by memory, powers of description and ability to sustain attention, venturing into the minds of others. Something William Shakespeare was quite adept at!

After the invention of writing and later the printing press, epic tales were told as long poems with rhyme and metre, which were popular as an aid to memory, and the earliest known story in literature is thought to be the epic tale of Gilgamesh, about a Sumerian King.

Gilgamesh at the Louvre

Gilgamesh at the Louvre


The story of Gilgamesh provided a basis for later works of fiction, and such stories contain a full range of emotions and establish heroes and villains that act as models for the way people behave in society.

fiction (n.)

early 15c., ficcioun, “that which is invented or imagined in the mind,” from Old French ficcion “dissimulation, ruse; invention, fabrication” (13c.) and directly from Latin fictionem (nominative fictio) “a fashioning or feigning,” noun of action from past participle stem of fingere “to shape, form, devise, feign,” originally “to knead, form out of clay,” from PIE *dheigh- “to build, form, knead” (source also of Old English dag “dough;” see dough).

Meaning “prose works (not dramatic) of the imagination” is from 1590s, at first often including plays and poems. Narrower sense of “the part of literature comprising novels and short stories based on imagined scenes or characters” is by early 19c. The legal sense (fiction of law) is from 1580s. A writer of fiction could be a fictionist (1827). The related Latin words included the literal notion “worked by hand,” as well as the figurative senses of “invented in the mind; artificial, not natural”: Latin fictilis “made of clay, earthen;” fictor “molder, sculptor” (also borrowed 17c. in English), but also of Ulysses as “master of deceit;” fictum “a deception, falsehood; fiction.”

Other examples are the famous Greek poems, The Iliad and Odyssey by Homer, written in around the 8th century BC, as well as more recent iconic works: Inferno by Dante, Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, Paradise Lost by John Milton and poems such as Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Coleridge Taylor and Don Juan by Lord Byron.

The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo c. 1773

The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo c. 1773

These days we have novels, plays, radio, film and television; stories are much more varied and widely dispersed through a substantial range of media, but the structure of a story is still crucial to its popularity, longevity and influence.

It was only a matter of time before our beloved Jane Austen would be infiltrated by zombies!!

Fiction is essentially a rhetorical art – which means that the author or novelist persuades us to share a certain view of the world for the duration of the reading experience, effecting, when successful, that rapt immersion in an imagined reality that Edward John Poynter captured so well in his painting of a lady reading.


“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” ~ Albert Camus

In order to spin a good yarn one’s mind has to wander off the beaten path, it has to transcend time and space, as well as purvey these mental time travels in a way that will entertain and educate. To make a living from mind wandering is a noble calling, but it’s not as easy as one might think.

Fiction cannot be a meandering set of scenes that don’t flow on to create a cohesive, compelling story and fail to pull us into that fictive dream. I wrote down the definition of a story I found really helpful from a creative writing webinar:

A story is a single, unavoidable, external problem that grows, escalates and complicates, forcing the protagonist to make an internal change in order to solve it.

We all have books that stayed with us long after we turned the last page – because the changes that the protagonist went through and the obstacles they overcame resonated with similar emotions or circumstances in our own lives. It took us on a meaningful journey.

“Fiction is life with the dull bits left out.” ~ Clive James

A great talk by Lisa Cron – Wired for story. I love that she calls storytelling a superpower hiding in plain sight:

Moral values can be reinforced through the medium of crime fiction for example, where readers can travel through time, (thanks to Arthur Conan Doyle) with the likes of the analytical and unsentimental Sherlock Holmes into other people’s minds and motivations to encounter danger and intrigue and solve a mystery.

Charles Dickens’ stories provide a vivid insight into 19th century London and the often dystopian conditions the poor lived in. Except his fiction was drawn from reality. His theme was social commentary. Dickens was the first novelist to pioneer the serialisation of novels, leaving readers to eagerly anticipate his next book.

“We read so that we know we are not alone.” ~ C.S. Lewis teaching in Shadowlands

Some of our society’s best loved stories were created from pure fantasy, such as Star Wars, and you might think that it can only serve purely as entertainment and to escape the every day drudgery of life. I’ll let you in on a secret: there have been times when I doubted myself and had to mentally give myself a pep talk and tell myself that the force is with me!

Studies show that fiction increases empathy and improves mind-reading, making us better able to understand others. There is scientific evidence that the architecture of our brains is hardwired for story because it gives us context, emotion and feeling.


We can thank Aristotle for his erudition on the structure for engaging and memorable stories; namely an emotional connection to the main character and pity over the situation they did not deserve, keeping them reading through worsening situations, obstacles and jeopardy that they now fear from the central conflict, driving them to the conclusion and catharsis, the emotional payoff, the happiness drug that is literally released by the brain when struggle has been overcome, perhaps as fulfilling as some other recreational activities!

“Brain-imaging has shown overlap between areas of the brain activated by reading narrative stories and those involved in theory of mind. One study measured the amount of fiction and non-fiction that people read, and found that empathy was correlated positively with the amount of fiction read, but negatively with the amount of non-fiction. Another study carried the headline ‘Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind.'”  ~ Michael C. Corballis

For me, writing and being creative is a combination of mind wandering and focus, and equally reading can set off ideas and mind wandering.

The telling of stories is unique to mankind, allowing us to expand our mental and emotional lives to unlimited horizons. Storytelling is the imaginary portal between our past, present and our future.


“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” ~ Philip Pullman

Surreal Synapses: Behind the Scenes of the Wandering Mind

“To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life.” ~ James Thurber (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty)

Mind-wandering is a fascinating topic. I thought I’d start this category off with a peek behind the scenes of our grey matter whilst it’s engaged in day-dreaming and mental time travel; better known as memory. You might think our brains are static while you’re not concentrating on a specific task, but quite the opposite is true.


Scientists have produced evidence that for half the day our minds are wandering, (obviously not in one continuous epic day dream), and at night, whilst in REM sleep our minds wander into dreams. Despite the bad rap mind-wandering has received (even from a recent Harvard study), this can be no bad thing if we are designed to spend considerable chunks of time doing it.

In his brilliant book, The Wandering Mind, Michael Corballis, emeritus professor at the Department of Psychology at the University of Auckland, has defended our innate tendencies to drift into these surreal synapses and put forward a compelling case for mind-wandering in various contexts.

It’s taken me a while to get my brain in gear for this post. There have been so many opportunities to ponder and wander…

Walter Mitty

The daring, audacious day-dreaming of fictional character Walter Mitty is something to behold. His adventurous perambulations on the colourful landscape of his imagination have no equal. OK, some authors might argue with me on that one…

To alleviate his rather dull life, Walter indulges in frequent, exciting bouts of ‘zoning out’, but his life becomes infinitely more interesting when he embarks on a real-life adventure. In the Ben Stiller film version, his day-dreaming facilitates him stepping outside his comfort zone and undertaking the journey of his life.

Mind-wandering is the portal to our memory, imagination, creativity, originality, mental time travel, the minds of others and psychic phenomena.

In fact, evolutionary psychologists believe that our cerebral escapades were one of the earliest mental faculties to evolve in Homo Sapiens; our relatively modern branch of the Homo genus that emerged in the Pleistocene period some 200,000 years ago.

Wander/won’der/intransitive verb. To go astray, deviate from the right path or course, the subject of attention, etc.

The day-dreaming taboo

At school, if the lesson was boring I’d often find myself day-dreaming despite my best efforts to concentrate on the task in hand. I would never have let on that I was day dreaming of course, for fear of the teacher’s wrath.


I’ve often noticed my children drifting off into other worlds during homework, reading, watching television and chores, concocting all sorts of outcomes. Depending on the activity I gently try to get them back on track. Sometimes though, when appropriate, I participate with them in some community and family mind-wandering.

Ruby’s favourite mind-wandering realm is that of the animal kingdom. She can do the most brilliant animal sounds (honorary dolphin), and act like a monkey with the best of them!

I’ve been surprised on many occasions at their problem solving abilities on issues that matter to them, most assuredly bolstered by their focus free interludes!

I think I will be more tolerant of my childrens’ mind wanderings, especially when I’m giving them instructions or when they are getting ready for school.


It seems that the taboo of mind-wandering is slowly lifting. Of course, there is a time and a place for mind-wandering. It’s definitely not when you are operating dangerous machinery, flying a plane or driving a car, as Walter Mitty does in the opening scene of James Thurber’s book, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

In fact, you could be doing the exact same thing right now. As your eyes scan these words maybe your mind is roving elsewhere!

Mind-wandering can be as intrusive as it can be pleasant. Perhaps we’re having trouble switching off; we can’t get that particular song or ear-worm out of our heads, we worry about trying circumstances or future events while we are trying to rest.

Alternatively, our minds can experience some respite from long periods of focus and engaging tasks. Taking a brisk walk always clears my head. We may deliberately swing from a hammock on a beach in the Seychelles, recall a favourite holiday, meander through nature or imagine rather more intimate activities…

Let’s take a break from the heavy mental lifting now and listen to a selection of popular culture’s music on the subject.

Measuring Brain Activity

Our understanding of what the brain is doing when it’s zoning out is possible because of an accident. It was German physician Hans Berger’s fall from his horse into the path of a horse-drawn canon that precipitated his exploration of electrical activity in the brain.


Had his sister not sensed that he was in danger several kilometres away and contacted their father Hans may never have considered the possibility of telepathy and invented a technique we still use today, electroencephalography (EEG). When subjects were in a resting state with their eyes closed the EEG showed a fluctuation in voltage frequency ranging between 8 to 13 cycles, which was named ‘Berger’s Wave’. Today it is known as the ‘Alpha Wave’.  Alpha brainwaves are perfect for day-dreaming and creativity!

Alpha Brainwaves - Originally the Berger Wave

Alpha Brainwaves – Originally the Berger Wave

Neuroscience has since sought to continue understanding how our brains work. Newer methods for measuring blood flow to the brain were invented to study what was termed by David H Ingvar as ‘undirected, spontaneous, conscious mentation’.

Positron Emission Tomography (PET) involves injecting radioactive substances into the blood stream to map activity in the brain, as well as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which uses a powerful magnet to detect haemoglobin carried in the blood and thus map the brain’s network. In this way researchers can see which parts of the brain are active when a person is involved in a specific task compared to when they are idle.

The Default Mode Network

Default Mode Network Connectivity

Default Mode Network Connectivity

Surprisingly, the idling brain receives only 5 to 10% less blood than when engaged, and wider regions of the brain are active during idle moments. The brain regions active in the wandering mind have become known as the ‘Default Mode Network’.

The Default Mode Network covers substantial areas of the brain, mainly in the areas not used in perceiving the world or responding to it. This is the network that lights up when we embark on our mental meandering.

It seems that nature has equipped us with two equally important mental faculties: mind wandering and paying attention. How often we alternate between the two depends to a large extent on individual proclivities.

But it happens whether we like it or not and whether we realise it is happening or not.

The benefits of appropriate mind-wandering allow us to adapt to a complex world, especially when we need to escape the here and now, mull over past mistakes and consider possible futures and understand how other people’s minds work. Empathy would not exist without this ability. Neither would the creative spark of humanity and our innovations over millennia.

All our modern conveniences, possessions, clothes, cars, art, culture, buildings, technology and the like were once figments and flashes of inspiration in a zoned-out mind.

We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

~ William Shakespeare (The Tempest)

A trip down memory lane

Our memory allows us to experience time as we know it, encompassing past, present and future, providing us with the ability to mentally time travel. We’ve all been there: trying frantically to remember someone’s name, retrace our steps to find lost keys, to recapture emotions and events that are meaningful to us and bury ones we’d rather forget. We use past events to help us envisage future events.

Memory is therefore a creative process. Memories are strengthened connections in the brain, all made possible by the Hippocampus (Major).

“She knew that she had a tendency to allow her mind to wander, but surely that’s what made the world interesting. One thought led to another, one memory triggered another. How dull it would be, she thought, not to be reminded of the interconnectedness of everything, how dull for the present not to evoke the past, for here not to imply there.” ~  Alexander McCall Smith, (The Novel Habits of Happiness)

The Hippocampus

This remarkable section of the human brain is what imbues us with a sense of where we are in space and time, and acts as a cognitive map.


It relates to personal matters, retrieval of personal events and making plans. Damage to this area can result in Anterograde Amnesia.

Because of its shape and resemblance to an equine sea creature, the name Hippocampus was derived from the Greek for seahorse. It’s located on the inner surface of the temporal lobes (behind the ears).


The Default Mode Network includes the prefrontal lobes, temporal lobes and parietal lobes, and activated areas overlap extensively. The Hippocampus is the hub of this network.

The hippocampus is so powerful that vividly imagined scenarios often appear to be real, and the line between fiction and reality becomes blurred. Sometimes these ‘scenes’ can be remembered as though they actually happened. This is how false memories occur.

It may seem the stuff of futuristic, nefarious thrillers (cue book idea), but it’s possible to put memories into people’s heads that weren’t there.

Now, what was I saying? Are you still with me?

Perhaps this is good place to rest and mind-wander for a bit. Next time I’ll explore the role of language, storytelling and psychical phenomena in our mind-wandering excursions.

In the meantime I’ll leave you with the exquisite reveries of Claude Debussy:

Thought is the labour of the intellect, reverie is its pleasure. ~ Victor Hugo