book review

“The Storytelling Animal” by Jonathan Gottschall

The Storytelling Animal

Gottschall, Jonathan. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human 
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012
ISBN 978-0-547-39140-3


“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories,” declares Jonathan Gottschall in the preface to his recent book The Storytelling Animal. Gottschall, a member of the English faculty at Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, PA, draws on recent research in such diverse fields as developmental and cognitive psychology, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience to explore the questions of how and why we humans have become the storytelling animal. A lot of this material is speculative, but Gottschall usually presents the views both for and against a given hypothesis. For example, he discusses the belief that dreams are meaningless, random firings of neurons alongside the view that dreams have meaning related to our life situations. Ultimately, though, he always comes down on the side of evolution, arguing that the human penchant for story has evolved to serve a survival function. 

Gottschall uses his evidence to build a problem simulation model of how stories in all forms help us navigate life. Just as pilots train on a computerized flight simulator, so do humans learn to deal with life situations by practicing them through the medium of stories: “Through stories we learn about human culture and psychology, without the potentially staggering costs of having to gain this experience firsthand” (p. 28). It is because stories help us rehearse how to deal with life’s potential problems that, across history and cultures, problems or complications have always been the defining characteristic of story. Gottschall therefore defines the story paradigm as follows (p. 52):

Story = Character + Predicament + Attempted Extrication

He writes that story saturates nearly every aspect of our everyday existence: imagination (which he calls Neverland), dreams, daydreams, children’s play, fiction, television shows and commercials, sports broadcasts, corporate culture, political narratives, national myths, and religious stories.

Because the purpose of stories is to teach us about life, the job of our storytelling mind is to make sense of what happens in the world around us. To do this, our mind looks for meaning and purpose in our experiences: “The storytelling mind is a crucial evolutionary adaptation. It allows us to experience our lives as coherent, orderly, and meaningful. It is what makes life more than a blooming, buzzing confusion” (p. 102). But if our experiences don’t contain obvious meaning and purpose, our mind will fill in what’s missing from those experiences so as to create a meaningful story: “If the storytelling mind cannot find meaningful patterns in the world, it will try to impose them. In short, the storytelling mind is a factory that churns out true stories when it can, but will manufacture lies when it can’t” (p. 103). It is for this reason, Gottschall argues, that urban legends and conspiracy theories flourish: They are stories that attempt to explain seemingly inexplicable and unrelated facts or events.

According to Gottschall, the stories our minds create serve one overarching purpose: They make society work better by defining and inculcating a sense of morality. Religious stories and national or patriotic myths develop within cultures to teach people how they are expected to act and to demonstrate the punishments that result when someone disobeys the rules. Even literary works contribute to teaching morality:  “Fiction almost never gives us morally neutral presentations of violence. When the villain kills, his or her violence is condemned. When the hero kills, he or she does so righteously. Fiction drives home the message that violence is acceptable only under clearly defined circumstances—to protect the good and the weak from the bad and the strong” (p. 132). He cites newly emerging research suggesting that reading fiction affects people’s brain functioning and thereby helps shape their outlooks and attitudes; he notes that reading nonfiction does not produce the same results.

One important type of human story is the life story, a narrative of our experiences that we tell both to ourselves and to others to create our identity and sense of self. The purpose of the life story is to demonstrate how we have become the person we are. The life story continuously changes over time to incorporate new material. In his chapter on life stories Gottschall emphasizes that we construct and reconstruct our life story through the imperfect process of memory. Near the end of the chapter he writes, “like a novel in progress, our life stories are always changing and evolving, being edited, rewritten, and embellished by an unreliable narrator” (p. 176). While this description is technically true, I am uncomfortable with its implication. Construction of the life story is not an act of subterfuge. Rather, it is a healthy and necessary aspect of human development. And while human memory may not be accurate in the same sense that a video recording of an event is accurate, our memory reveals the way an experience affected us as an individual. This is why several people often have widely divergent memories of the same event. The purpose of the life story is not to create a historical record but rather to explain the development of a unique individual. When it comes to our own life story, we are each the only possible reliable narrator.

With its endnotes and extensive bibliography, this book is an interesting hybrid apparently intended for both popular and academic audiences. The lack of numbered references in the text makes flipping between the chapters and the endnotes a chore, but pages uncluttered by footnotes make for easy reading. Overall, The Storytelling Animal presents new material that updates earlier, seminal studies in narrative theory such as Narrative Psychology: The Storied Nature of Human Conduct by Theodore R. Sarbin (Praeger, 1986), Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences by Donald E. Polkinghorne (State University of New York Press, 1988), and The Stories We Live By by Dan P. McAdams (Guilford Press, 1993).  

This review originally appeared on Metapsychology Online Reviews (May 29th 2012)

I purchased a copy of this book for review.

© 2012 by Mary Daniels Brown

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