The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human Hardcover – April 10, 2012
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Jonathan Gottschall on The Storytelling Animal
What is the storytelling animal?
Only humans tell stories. Story sets us apart. For humans, story is like gravity: a field of force that surrounds us and influences all of our movements. But, like gravity, story is so omnipresent that we are hardly aware of how it shapes our lives. I wanted to know what science could tell us about humanity's strange, ardent love affair with story.
What inspired you to write this book?
I was speeding down the highway on a gorgeous autumn day, cheerfully spinning through the FM dial, and a country music song came on. My normal response to this sort of catastrophe is to turn the channel as quickly as possible. But that day, for some reason, I decided to listen. In "Stealing Cinderella," Chuck Wicks sings about a young man asking for his sweetheart's hand in marriage. The girl's father makes the young man wait in the living room, where he notices photos of his sweetheart as a child, "She was playing Cinderella/ She was riding her first bike/ Bouncing on the bed and looking for a pillow fight/ Running through the sprinkler/ With a big popsicle grin/ Dancing with her dad, looking up at him. . ." And the young man suddenly realizes that he is taking something precious from the father: he is stealing Cinderella. Before the song was over I was crying so hard that I had to pull off the road. I sat there for a long time feeling sad about my own daughters growing up to abandon me. But I was also marveling at how quickly Wicks's small, musical story had melted me into sheer helplessness. I wrote the book partly in an effort to understand what happened to me that day.
But don't you worry that science could explain away the magic of story?
I get this question a lot. The answer is "No! A thousand times, no!" Science adds to wonder; it doesn't dissolve it. Scientists almost always report that the more they discover about their subject, the more lovely and mysterious it becomes. That's certainly what I found in my own research. The whole experience left me in awe of our species--of this truly odd primate that places story (and other forms of art) at the very center of its existence.
Children come up a lot in this book, including your own children. . .
Yes, I spent a lot of time observing my two daughters (in this I took my cue from Darwin, who was a doting father, but not shy about collecting observational data on his large brood). I got lucky. My girls happened to be 4 and 7 during the main period that I was working on my book. This is the golden period of children's pretend play. And I was able to observe them spontaneously creating these fantastic wonder-worlds, with these elaborate and dangerous plots. I noticed that my girls spent almost all of their awake time in various kinds of make-believe. And I was invited to enter those worlds myself, to play the roles of princes and Ken dolls and monsters. I learned a lot about the nature of story from my girls. Story and other forms of art are often seen as products of culture. But this perspective is one-sided. Story blooms naturally in a child--it is as effortless and reflexive as breathing.
Are dreams a form of storytelling?
Yes, they are. Dreams are, like children's make-believe, a natural and reflexive form of storytelling. Researchers conventionally define dreams as "intense sensorimotor hallucinations with a narrative structure." Dreams are, in effect, night stories: they focus on a protagonist--usually the dreamer--who struggles to achieve desires. Researchers can't even talk about dreams without dragging in the basic vocabulary of English 101: plot, theme, character, scene, setting, point of view, perspective. The most conservative estimates suggest that we dream in a vivid, story-like way for more than six solid years out of a seventy-year lifespan. So dreams are definitely part of the evolutionary riddle of storytelling.
What is the future of story?
In the digital age, people are reading less fiction, but this is because they've found new ways to jam extra story into their lives--on average we watch five hours of TV per day, listen to hours of songs, and spend more and more time playing story-centric video games. I think we are seeing, in video games, the birth of what will become the 21st century's dominant form of storytelling. The fantasy lands of online games like World of Warcraft attract tens of millions of players, who spend an average of 20–30 hours per week adventuring in interactive story. Players describe the experience of these games as "being inside a novel as it is being written." In upcoming decades, as computing power increases exponentially, these virtual worlds are going to become so attractive that we will be increasingly reluctant to unplug. So the real danger isn't that story will disappear from our lives. It is that story will take them over completely.
"[An] insightful yet breezily accessible exploration of the power of storytelling and its ability to shape our lives...[that is] packed with anecdotes and entertaining examples from pop culture." The Boston Globe
"The Storytelling Animal is informative, but also a lot of fun.... Anyone who has wondered why stories affect us the way they do will find a new appreciation of our collective desire to be spellbound in this fascinating book." BookPage
"Stories are the things that make us human, and this book's absorbing, accessible blend of science and story shows us exactly why." Minneapolis Star Tribune.
"This is a work of popular philosophy and social theory written by an obviously brilliant undergraduate teacher. The gift for the example is everywhere. A punchy line appears on almost every page." The San Francisco Chronicle
—Library Journal "A lively pop-science overview of the reasons why we tell stories and why storytelling will endure..[Gottschall's] snapshots of the worlds of psychology, sleep research and virtual reality are larded with sharp anecdotes and jargon-free summaries of current research... Gottschall brings a light tough to knotty psychological matters, and he’s a fine storyteller himself."
—Kirkus Reviews "They say we spend multiple hours immersed in stories every day. Very few of us pause to wonder why. Gottschall lays bare this quirk of our species with deft touches, and he finds that our love of stories is its own story, and one of the grandest tales out there—the story of what it means to be human."
—Sam Kean, author of The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements "Story is not the icing, it’s the cake! Gottschall eloquently tells you ‘how come’ in his well researched new book."
—Peter Guber, CEO, Mandalay Entertainment and author of the #1 New York Times bestseller, Tell To Win "This is a quite wonderful book. It grips the reader with both stories and stories about the telling of stories, then pulls it all together to explain why storytelling is a fundamental human instinct."
— Edward O. Wilson, University Research Professor and Honorary Curator in Entomology, Harvard University "Stories are everywhere. Stories make us buy; they make us cry; they help us pass the time, even when we're asleep. In this enthralling book, Jonathan Gottschall traces the enduring power of stories back to the evolved habits of mind. He reveals the ways in which we are trapped, for better or worse, in a world of narrative. If you are in the storytelling business — and aren't we all? — you must read this book." —Jonah Lehrer "The Storytelling Animal is a delight to read. It's boundlessly interesting, filled with great observations and clever insights about television, books, movies, videogames, dreams, children, madness, evolution, morality, love, and more. And it's beautifully written—fittingly enough, Gottschall is himself a skilled storyteller."
—Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology at Yale and author of How Pleasure Works "Like the magnificent storytellers past and present who furnish him here with examples and inspiration, Jonathan Gottschall takes a timely and fascinating but possibly forbidding subject — the new brain science and what it can tell us about the human story-making impulse — and makes of it an extraordinary and absorbing intellectual narrative. The scrupulous synthesis of art and science here is masterful; the real-world stakes high; the rewards for the reader numerous, exhilarating, mind-expanding."
—Terry Castle, Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities, Stanford University
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“In recent decades, roughly corresponding with the rise of TV, psychology has begun a serious study of story’s effects on the human mind… fiction does mold our minds. Story—whether delivered through films, books, or video games—teaches us facts about the world; influences our moral logic; and marks us with fears, hopes, and anxieties that alter our behavior, perhaps even our personalities. Research shows that story is constantly nibbling and kneading us, shaping our minds without our knowledge or consent” (p. 148); and “Humans are creatures of Neverland. Neverland is our evolutionary niche, our special habitat” (p. 177).
But, while recognizing some dangers, the book is too optimistic on the impacts of storytelling on humanity. Thus, the book does not confront the negative effects of amusement industry, advertisement fables and political marketing stories. Its most serious error assumes morality-enhancing effects of stories, as if there exists an universal and timeless human morality reinforced by them.
The author mentions violence caused by conflicting religious beliefs, but then forgets all about it when making statements claiming that “as with sacred myths, ordinary stories—from TV shows to fairy tales—steep us all in the same powerful norms and values” (p. 134). Thus the book ignores the pluralism of values which contradict each other. If the author had taken into account Nazi stories and movies he would not make a grievous error: ignoring a fundamental feature of humanity, namely self-righteous highly moral persons and collectives clinging fanatically to different stories producing a sense of moral duty to kill non-believers, inferior races, exploiters and so on – making history into what Hegel called a “slaughterhouse” and quite likely. when driven with fitting stories and equipped with increasingly effective tools of mass killing, endangering the future of the human species..
Related is the author’s statement “that fiction, by constantly marinating our brains in the theme of poetic justice, may be partly responsible for the overly optimistic sense that the world is, on the whole, a just place. And yet the fact that we take this lesson to heart may be an important part of what makes human societies work (p. 135).
True, the human species continues to exist, though its future is not assured. And most humans are at present materially better off than ever before. But the masses of India, Africa, large parts of South America and more hardly think that global society works well; and lack of coping with climate change throws even more doubts on the “working” of human society as a whole. Therefore, much of the story telling giving a good feeling to parts of humanity may be a toxic tranquillizer.
Thus, besides its many merits, the book suffers from what I call the “Better Angels Mirage.” A more critical stance on the impacts of stories would have made this book even better.
Professor Yehezkel Dror
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Beyond all that heady stuff, Gottschall's work is meticulously researched, yet he delivers it with a breezy, anecdote-riddled style. Love it. GREAT book!
The first few chapters look at children's play, fiction, and dreams, and conclude that an essential function of story is to prepare us for life's inevitable difficulties by running us through thousands upon thousands of trouble-based scenarios.
The next few chapters reveal story's centrality in daily life as meta-social narrative; as personal identity narrative; and, as moral compass; and, Gottschall demonstrates how fictions worm deep inside our minds, parasite-like, and exert a vast influence on our daily behavior. Hitler, for example, is shown to have been profoundly guided by Wagner's opera "Rienzi."
The book concludes by considering story's future, showing how fiction is encroaching more and more upon the territory of reality, and how we may soon be saturated in virtual worlds of illusion (more than we already are, if this is possible).
I recommend the book wholeheartedly to anyone interested in story; however, it left me wanting depth and comprehensiveness. It feels more like a series of charming magazine articles than a coherent work attempting to deeply master and illuminate its subject.
The book nicely conforms to the mold of popular contemporary non-fiction: fast-paced and peppered with anecdotes and soft social science research; provocative, but it doesn't make you think too hard (this can be a good thing, depending on what you're looking for).
There was room here, with a little more patience and a little less attention to commercialism, for a stellar, substantial book. The Storytelling Animal fails to provide definitive statements or true revelations, but it never fails to provoke and entertain.
I started with the audio book then also bought the ebook so I could go through it again to retain the insights. I will be coming back to reference it, and have already done so.
That said, I am only giving it 4 stars instead of 5 because wanted to love the actual reading of it more than I did. I found it took me longer to get through than some nonfiction books that I cannot put down. It is hard to say why exactly, but one reason I think might have to do with the way Gottschall uses story techniques to lead the reader down a path and then takes an unexpected turn. In doing so, he is effective at making a point. Still, as a reader, we trust the author and if he takes us somewhere we did not want to go or if we feel tricked, some of the love is lost. In fairness, the fact that story can so easily manipulate people is one of the major themes of the book, and he acknowledges and apologizes for doing it. I hesitate to be critical in any way because it was thoroughly researched, solidly written and fascinating.
Top international reviews
For aspiring writers, this is your new Tao Te Ching. For Psychology types, it is no less interesting to see how human beings make sense of reality by believing in the fictional. And for everyone else, it's still an amazing exploration through society, the brain, history, and our own imagination.
And excellent insights in how the human mind works, and what stories mean to us. A lot.
Read this, highly recommended.