Jonathan Gottschall: THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL: How Stories Make Us Human

Here’s a nonfiction book from 2012 that I just read this past month. It’s one of three or four books I have (another is called HOUSTON, WE HAVE A NARRATIVE: WHY SCIENCE NEEDS STORY) that are about the idea of *narrative*, how humans think of everything in terms of story, of which the most basic example is cause and effect, and why we do so. Despite the fact that deep scientific theories about space and time reveal a cosmos that does not, in fundamental ways, behave in cause and effect ways. Thus the discomfort and dismissal of many to such theories, however validated they may be.

This is of particular interest to me because I’ve been sketching hierarchies of various themes about the understanding of reality, including one of science fiction, and science fiction is of course a bunch of stories, narratives. If it’s a mistake to simplify everything about reality into narratives, how is science fiction useful for this understanding? Well, that’s a paradox to explore, but one way will be to consider the range of different types of science fiction stories, and why some are so much more popular than others, and why some that challenge that presumption are also popular, or notorious, because of anyone, science fiction readers are alert to challenges to common sense.

Summary with a few comments (with more comments at the end):

Ch1, “The Witchery of Story”. Children are creatures of story; they are always in Neverland. But story pervades adult concerns too, from pop music, dreams, daydreams, pro wrestling, opera, TV commercials. Trials are often matters of which side tells the better story. Gossip. Religious traditions. If there were two tribes, one practical, one story-telling, imagine how they spend their time, and which would win.

Ch2, “The Riddle of Fiction”. How children play pretend until a certain age. What are stories *for*? It’s an evolutionary riddle; like the human hand, it serves many purposes. Children’s play is deadly serious — always about trouble, about problems. The differences between boys’ and girls’ play is constant, despite attempts to disprove it. Among both humans and animals, play helps youngsters rehearse for adult life. That so many “children’s stories” (like those of the Brothers Grimm) focus on violence should ameliorate concerns about the violence in modern video games.

Ch3, “Hell Is Story-Friendly.” Stories about dangerous situations are more compelling than ordinary situations. Aristotle noticed this. Writers who’ve tried hyper-realistic stories in which no problems occur discover few readers are interested. Fiction is about conflict; this limits the skeleton structure of a story. The modernists (Joyce, Proust) tried to transcend the conventional story, but there’s a universal grammar in stories around the world, on a handful of master themes. Mirror neurons, discovered in the 1990s, show mental states are contagious. Pinker has suggested that stories equip us with a mental file of dilemmas we may one day face; or do their merely train an inner problem simulator?

Ch4, “Night Story.” About dreams. Why do we dream? Old ideas: messages from the spirit world; from the id. Do dreams sort memories, keeping some and discarding others? Or perhaps they are brain waste, with no purpose at all. In the 1950s it was discovered that kitties dream too. As in stories there are common themes in dreams; they involve important or threatening things in life. Yet, that we forget most of them suggests they are not worth much; as simulations they are seldom realistic.

Ch5, “The Mind Is a Storyteller.” Anecdote about Bill the King, in 1796, who lived an elaborate fantasy involving everywhere he knew and something called an air loom. He was a patient, a lunatic, and Bedlam. Such cases involve bizarre beliefs, outside forces, conspiracies. There is suggestive evidence of a connection between madness and creativity.

  • When the corpus callosum is cut, splitting the two halves of the brain, each side perceives different things; and so, experiments show, patients will *invent* explanations when needed. E.g., the right brain sees something the left cannot; the left brain fabricates the gap; the left brain is a classic know-it-all that can’t bear not to have an answer.
  • Sherlock Holmes Syndrome—your storytelling mind is like a homunculus behind your left eye, explaining everything like Sherlock Holmes. His trains of reasoning. Actually his method is ridiculous; examples. He reasons backward from the conclusion he prefers. The storytelling animal is addicted to meaning, allergic to uncertainly, randomness, and coincidence.
  • Geometric Rape—the human mind is tuned to detect patterns, and is biased toward false positive rathr than false negatives. Human faces; animals in clouds, 104t. thus a hunger for stories. It makes up stories to relate unrelated events. Example of an animated film. Another example of adjacent photos, the Kuleshov effect.
  • A Cursed Rage for Order—those examples are tame; worse are conspiracy theories, that connect real data points into coherent, emotionally satisfying versions of reality. Examples of novels, films. Alex Jones. The guy about lizard people, 113m. There are millions of conspiracy theories about every prominent person and event. They’re not strange, but ordinary. They would be funny if they did not have consequences. and many people believe them, p115. And they’re not the product of backwardness or ignorance; many are promoted by the educated class. Everyone is subject to the compulsive need for meaning; why are things so bad in the world? They are consoling in their simplicity. P116.

Ch 6, “The Moral of the Story.” About the Holy Books. Lots of stories. All religions in history rely on stories to convey messages. (Note 118b about how staunch believers would call the narratives of *other* religions are stories, but not their own scriptures.) “Religion is the ultimate expression of story’s dominion over our minds.” 119.3. Religion isn’t going away. The roots of spirituality must lie deep in human nature. How did this evolve? “How did dogmatic faith in imaginary beings not diminish our ability to survive and reproduce?” 120.3 The standard explanation is that we invent gods to give meaning to existence; we abhor explanatory vacuums. Some, like Dawkins and Dennett, consider religion a mental parasite best lived without. Others think religion is not useless or worse. David Sloan Wilson (in Darwin’s Cathedral, 2002) speculates that religion makes societies work better. It defines the group. It binds people together and puts the group’s interests ahead of their own (Nicholas Wade, The Faith Instinct). What seems irrational in religion makes sense given what such beliefs cause people to do. Assert their group’s interest against competitors. [[ basically, group selection ]] Yet—it also drives people apart.

  • Sacred Histories—National myths serve similar functions. E.g. what’s taught about Columbus—is mostly fiction. cf Howard Zinn, airbrushed history. Others [Diamond?] say the difference was technological. Yet most of history is myths in which we’re the good guys.
  • Imagining the Unimaginable—About a romance between a 22yo man and a 45yo woman. People glared, objected, but who were they harming? Think about what happened as you picture the story in your head…right up to the end, when you discover they’re actually son and mother. Haidt’s moral logic. We can imagine virtually anything in a story. Except when we hit moral problems. Stories have to resolve in certain ways, or readers rebel.
  • [[ He might have mentioned Shirley Jackson’s famous story “The Lottery,” which had such a shocking, seeming amoral ending that many readers of The New Yorker, where it first appeared, cancelled their subscriptions. ]]
  • [[ This is a good point and might be one of those subversive things science fiction does to challenge assumptions. ]] Examples 129b: Lolita; Clockwork Orange. But storytellers assure us how wrong these things are.
  • Virtue Rewarded—Plato banished poets and storytellers. But fiction is intensely moralistic. In most stories villains die and heroes are rewarded; violence is acceptable only in clearly define circumstances. Yes, there’s moral ambiguity in sophisticated fiction, 133, but pop story forms are structured on poetic justice, 134. Thus stories reinforce norms and values derived from human nature. Evidence fiction has positive effects on moral development. People need to believe in justice for society to function, even though it’s not true; bad things happen to good people all the time. Fiction reinforces the “just-world” belief [[ or fallacy ]]. For most of human history, story has been communal. Even now stories are shared by many people… Story binds society.

Ch 7, Ink People Change the World

  • About two boys, an opera, Adolfus, who fails in art school and becomes Adolf Hitler. Inspired by the opera Rienzi. Wagner was a German nationalist and anti-Semite.
  • Ink People—characters in fiction are just ink people, yet they pervade into our world and change societies. Rienzi was first a novel. Yet some think story useless; people understand fiction vs reality. Yet—the story that became Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Its influence on the civil war. It kept Britain out of the war. Many other examples, 147-8. But are these just anecdotes? Research has been done: fiction does mold our minds [[ Another point to keep in mind when discussing SF. 148b. ]] Fiction teaches you about the world, e.g. police work in TV shows. People are traumatized by scary fiction, more than by articles or speeches. Fiction seems to change beliefs more than nonfiction, 150m. Seeing violence makes people more aggressive. Also attitudes about different races. Becoming absorbed in a story, we drop are critical guard. ß extrapolate to how SF “opens” the mind…
  • Holocuast, 1933—Hitler, in fact, was motivated by art, even as the Nazis burned books by un-Germans. And he was a consummate actor.

Ch 8, Life Stories

About David and Donald, drunk and on drugs… 20 years later he writes his memoir and the two disagree on a key event. People remember what they can live with. James Frey. Other examples. Most memoirs have clear story grammar, 161t. Problem structure, good/bad guy dynamics. Our own life stories are personal myths about who we are, how we got that way, what it means. A life story is a useful fiction.

  • “Memory, of course, is never true”—Example of girl in 1889 reporting a crime in great detail. Flashbulb memories—we do remember traumatic moments in our lives, but the details can’t be trusted. E.g. Challenger, or 9/11. E.g. Bush thinking he saw the first plane hit. Some of these memories are just made up. The girl is 1889 was subject of a doctor’s attempts to implant false memories. Later, the 1990s, the great sex panic. Repressed memories. Elizabeth Loftus. Memory is much less trustworthy than previously suspected. Planting false memories. So, how can we trust our memories about anything? Memories conflate in our brains. The past is a fantasy created in our mind.
  • Heroes of our own epics—Memory may be faulty by design; perhaps to allow us to live better lives. Ego-enhancing bias. Even awful people don’t think they’re bad guys. Examples. Even John Wayne Gacy. We want to be the heroes of our lives—but most of us aren’t heroic. Photos vs. mirrors. We cite our positive qualities, not our negative. Lake Woebegone effect. The things that are important are the things we’re good at. Depressed people are more accurate about their personal qualities. Positive illusions keep us from recognizing that the truth is depressing, 175t. Psychotherapy helps gives people a story they can live with. Until we die, we live the story of our life. A story more truthy than true.

Ch 9, The Future of Story, p177

Are we leaving Neverland behind? Is fiction losing its central place in our culture? Theatre, poetry? Scripted TV? Is gaming taking over? Some think so. Yet tens of thousands of novels are published every year. JK Rowling. Left Behind. Et al, 179t. Literary novels have always had a harder time of it. Even if novels fade, the story would not end. Poetry has given way to song, rap, hip-hop. Video games are intensely story driven.

  • True Lies—On TV, even reality shows turn events into classic story lines. Example of The Ultimate Fighter. SuperNanny. Fiction will always be: character + predicament + attempted extrication.
  • Back to Neverland—About kids playing in a state park, in outfits—a LARP called Forest of Doors. Grown-up make-believe. Derived from RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons.
  • Brave New World!—Storytelling will evolve. Recall feelies and the holodeck. Now there are MMORPGs. World of Warcraft.
  • Exodus—We’re migrating to a virtual world, perhaps. Consider people with no sense of community in ‘real’ life. They find it in the mmorpgs, whose world are meaningful. They resurrect myths about gods. …we evolved to crave story, but could they be a weakness, just as craving for food now makes us obese? The real threat is that story will take over completely. [[ Recall Harari’s prediction that the unemployed will occupy themselves with drugs and games. ]]

Or: we can make nutritious choices, p198-9, summarized:

  • Read and watch fiction;
  • Fiction doesn’t degrade society’s moral fabric;
  • We’re suckers for story and so are easily molded and manipulated;
  • Recognize stories can change the world, for the good or the worse;
  • Allow time in your child’s schedule for time in Neverland;
  • Allow yourself to daydream;
  • Beware your inner storyteller locking into the overdrive of conspiracy theories;
  • By tolerant of national and religious myths;
  • Novels are dying;
  • They way we experience stories will change, but they won’t go away;
  • Rejoice in the power of storytelling; get lost in a novel.


Again, the most abstract SF (Olaf Stapledon? Some of Egan and Chiang?) is unsatisfying to some because it *doesn’t* provide the emotional payoff of the traditional story… note 199.2: “People don’t go to story land because they want something startlingly new; they go because they want the old comforts of the universal story grammar.” –Well, I’d say, you find the entire range among science fiction readers. There are the conservative ones who want plain stories with beginnings, middle, and ends; and at the other extreme (e.g. in the 1960s “New Wave”) you had writers and readers utterly bored with all that, looking for something new and exciting.

I didn’t anticipate that the narrative drive (sometimes considered a fallacy) would lead to conspiracy theories, but I should have: in this context, conspiracy theories are the tendency to make sense of the world by perceiving cause and effect gone carcinogenic. I hadn’t appreciated how there are conspiracy theories about virtually every well-known person and event, but am not inclined to speculate why. Not worth the trouble.

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