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The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall

July 4, 2014


The stories we share—our histories, our mythologies, our fictions—are one of the most important binding agents of families, cultures, nations and even our species. Stories are at the root of our religious beliefs. In writing and in the oral tradition, on film and on the Internet, stories are the primary vehicles for our history and our values. Stories are more than entertainment—they are the fabric of our cultures. They give value and meaning to places, objects and people. In this book, Gottschall examines how stories do all these things, and how stories are at the very core of what makes us human.

Children as young as three years old act out stories when they play. It seems a natural instinct to role play, to construct a narrative and a system of right and wrong. Some children, particularly boys, include shocking violence in their play—guns, swordfights, fake deaths. Not only is the storytelling aspect of play natural, but Gottschall points to research that says that the good/evil duality of children’s play is also natural—they are sorting through what is right and wrong and inventing consequences for their actions.

More broadly, cultures universally use stories to explain the world (e.g. creation myths) and define the norms for their society. In religious scriptures, in fables, in any narrative form—books, movies, poetry, theater, video games, comic books—conflicts and outcomes delineate guidelines for living in that society. Stories lay out a set of moral guidelines and the consequences if those guidelines are violated.

Scientific research shows that stories affect the brain differently than other information. In fact, research suggests that the brain’s reaction to a story is in many ways indistinguishable from how the brain experiences an actual event. Stories allow us to “try out” other experiences, to inhabit other lives and explore consequences of decisions we might never make in our own lives. And while the pundits of moral outrage often decry violent movies and video games as corrosive to our culture, there is value in even those stories too.

“Literature offers feelings for which we don’t have to pay. It allows us to love, condemn, condone, hope, dread, and hate without any of the risks those feelings ordinarily involve.”
– Janet Burroway

There is an interesting section in the book about the fallibility of our memories and how they relate to our innate craving for a coherent story. Research around traumatic events (Princess Diana’s death, 9/11) shows that what people remember of those days is more often than not factually inaccurate. Other classic experiments revealed the fickleness of memory as researchers were able to “implant” specific events into the memories of the test subjects. What this shows is that the past is more of a “mental simulation” of events rather than a precise recollection. “Memory isn’t an outright fiction; it is merely a fictionalization…We misremember the past in a way that allows us to maintain protagonist status in the stories of our lives.” This is one of the key values of therapy—it helps the patient construct a coherent and meaningful narrative for their life. According to psychologist Michele Crossley, “depression often stems from an ‘incoherent story,’ an ‘inadequate narrative account of oneself’ or ‘a life story gone awry.’” In other words, our memories are just the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

Story is often relegated to the realm of “play,” because most people associate it more with entertainment or fiction than anything with practical application. But Gottschall makes a convincing case that it’s just the opposite—story is at the core of who we are. Without it, we are literally meaningless.

I have a particular interest in the notion of story. Beyond my love for reading and writing, I work in advertising, where the word “story” is over- and mis-used. We talk about the power of story, about the importance of constructing a “brand narrative” in order to make our messages more memorable and our brands more meaningful. Yet often the “story” we tell is something like “our meatballs are the meatiest.” That’s a message, not a story. I found this book to be a good reminder of what constitutes an actual story. But, more importantly, it’s full of ammunition for explaining the need to create a story and the value that a good story can have.

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