The Storytelling Animal

How Stories Make Us Human

In 2006, Everyman’s Library published We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, the collected nonfiction of the eminent journalist and novelist, Joan Didion.

While the claim he makes in his stimulating book, The Storytelling Animal, isn’t quite so expansive, Washington & Jefferson College English professor Jonathan Gottschall proposes that much of what makes us human is an affinity for stories.

Drawing on an array of disciplines far removed from traditional literary studies – from neuroscience to psychology to biology to genetics – he argues persuasively that our minds “yield helplessly to the suction of story. No matter how deep we dig in our heels, we just can’t resist the gravity of alternate worlds.”

Beginning in the fantasy games of children as young as 3, Gottschall sees evidence of our attachment to story, leading him to conclude we’re hardwired for narrative, but also to inquire why people “make and consume art when doing so has real costs in time and energy and no obvious biological payoffs.”

To that question, he doesn’t offer any definitive answer. Though he’s been labeled a “Literary Darwinist,” he resists slotting in any evolutionary camp, concluding that “we probably gravitate to the story for a number of different evolutionary reasons.” But he also emphatically rejects the view that we turn to fiction out of a desire for pure escapism, pointing out that “most of what is actually in fiction is deeply unpleasant.”

Fiction is about trouble, he argues, and “the thornier the predicament faced by the hero, the more we like the story.”

Gottschall travels lightly over some of the other arguments advanced to explain the pervasiveness of story. These include, for one, the opportunity it gives us to simulate real-world situations, citing experiments concluding that “when we see something scary or sexy or dangerous in a film, our brains light up as though that thing were happening to us, not just to a cinematic figment.” There’s support for story’s practical utility in one study that finds avid fiction readers score higher on tests of social and empathic ability than those who read mainly nonfiction.

As displayed most dramatically (and disturbingly) in conspiracy theories or the delusions of schizophrenics, our conscious minds strive to impose order on what might otherwise be seen as a world in chaos.

For most of us, the persistence of story surfaces dramatically every night in the world of dreams, a subject to which Gottschall devotes considerable discussion. He canvasses some of the prominent theories of dream interpretation, from Freudian psychoanalysis to RAT (random activation theory, whose exponents argue that dreams are just “brain waste”). Gottschall suggests dreams may serve a function similar to the one served by our affinity for “trouble” in fiction: giving us practice in dealing with the big dilemmas of human life.

As displayed most dramatically (and disturbingly) in conspiracy theories or the delusions of schizophrenics, our conscious minds strive to impose order on what might otherwise be seen as a world in chaos.

“In short, the storytelling mind is a factory that churns out true stories when it can, but will manufacture lies when it can’t.” Gottschall doesn’t make a point of aligning himself with atheists or the faithful (though he appears to tilt toward the former), suggesting that in “sacred fiction, we find the master confabulations of the storytelling mind,” as we “conjure gods, spirits, and sprites to fill explanatory voids.”

He devotes close attention to the subject of memoir, probably our most popular contemporary literary form, despite all its pitfalls.

The book reports on some fascinating studies about the fallibility of memory, including one that established some 73 percent of people remembered seeing the first plane hit the North Tower on 9/11, when no video record of that event exists. Gottschall also briefly treats the subject of “recovered” memory, pointing out “how shockingly vulnerable the memory system is to contamination by suggestion.”

By the conclusion of this whirlwind survey, Gottschall ranges far afield from cultural artifacts like novels and film to suggest that the brave new world of stories may well gravitate to the MMORPG, for “massively multiplayer online role-playing games,” like World of Warcraft (some 12 million people play it). The vision he paints of that world, in which people interact more with a virtual community than a real one, will disturb traditionalists, but it’s a telling illustration of the dynamism of the storytelling art.

On most issues, once he’s articulated the competing views, Gottschall seems to step back from taking a definitive position. That doesn’t make the book any less intriguing, but it may leave some readers spoiling for vigorous intellectual combat feeling a little frustrated. Still, in portraying how critical the storytelling instinct is to our very existence, he succeeds admirably at the main task he has set for himself: nudging us to look at even the most mundane aspects of daily life in the light cast by the glow of story.

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