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

31 March, 2022 - 22 min read


I. Brief Summary

Spinning fantasies has always been a human thing to do. Why? Because we are a storytelling animal. This is the premise of the book. But what are stories? Are dreams also stories? Why do we daydream and love spinning stories? Do stories have dark side to it? Jonathan Gottschall has done a great job of investigating these hard questions on the topic. Most successful stories are moral—they teach us how to live and bind us together around common values. It's not that we shape stories, but the stories shape us.

II. Big Ideas

  • Americans spend about nineteen hundred hours per year in the glow of television and movie screens. That’s five hours per day.
  • Why are humans addicted to Neverland? How did we become the storytelling animal. Neverland is a fictional place where we wander abouut stories. Neverland mostly remains an undiscovered and unmapped country. We do not know why we crave story. We don’t know why Neverland exists in the first place.
  • Children are creatures of stories

    • To bar kids from Neverland would be an act of violence. Children over delight in stories and start shaping their own pretend worlds as toddlers. Story is so central to the lives of young children that it comes close to defining their existence.
    • What do little kids do? Mostly they do story.
    • To children, though, the best thing in life is play: the exuberance of running and jumping and wrestling and all the danger and splendor of pretend worlds. Children play at story by instinct. Put small children in a room together, and you will see the spontaneous creation of art.
    • Children don’t need to be tutored in story. We don’t need to bribe them to make stories like we bribe them to eat broccoli.
    • Why are children creatures of story? To answer this question, we need to ask a broader one first: why do humans tell stories at all? The answer may seem obvious: stories give us joy. But it isn’t obvious that stories should give us joy, at least not in the way it’s biologically obvious that eating or sex should give us joy. It is the joy of story that needs explaining.
    • Children’s pretend play is clearly about many things: mommies and babies, monsters and heroes, spaceships and unicorns. And it is also about only one thing: trouble.
  • Gender role

    • In a small masterpiece of kiddie anthropology, Boys and Girls: Superheroes in the Doll Corner, Paley tried to get her pupils to behave in a more unisex way. And it is a chronicle of spectacular and amusing failure. None of Paley’s tricks or bribes or clever manipulations worked. For instance, she tried forcing the boys to play in the doll corner and the girls to play in the block corner. Paley’s experiment culminated in her declaration of surrender to the deep structures of gender. She decided to let the girls be girls.
  • Stories are trouble seeking

    • What do the stories have in common? They are short and choppy. They are all plot. They are marked by a zany creativity: flying choo-choos and talking ducks. And they are bound together by a fat rope of trouble.
    • The play scholar Brian Sutton-Smith, who writes, “The typical actions in orally told stories by young children include being lost, being stolen, being bitten, dying, being stepped on, being angry, calling the police, running away or falling down. In their stories they portray a world of great flux, anarchy, and disaster.”
    • Fiction—from children’s make-believe to folktales to modern drama—is about trouble. Aristotle was the first to note this, and it is now a staple in English literature courses and creative writing manuals.
  • Fiction help us escape

    • If story were just pleasurable frippery, then evolution would have long ago eliminated it as a waste of energy. The fact that story is a human universal is strong evidence of biological purpose.
    • Fiction may temporarily free us from our troubles, but it does so by ensnaring us in new sets of troubles—in imaginary worlds of struggle and stress and mortal woe. There is a paradox in fiction that was first noticed by Aristotle in the Poetics. We are drawn to fiction because fiction gives us pleasure. But most of what is actually in fiction is deeply unpleasant: threat, death, despair and anxiety.
  • The role of practice

    • Nature designed us to enjoy stories so we would get the benefit of practice.
    • According to evolutionary thinkers such as Brian Boyd, Steven Pinker, and Michelle Scalise Sugiyama, story is where people go to practice the key skills of human social life.
    • The psychologist and novelist Keith Oatley calls stories the flight simulators of human social life. Just as flight simulators allow pilots to train safely, stories safely train us for the big challenges of the social world.
    • It was found that heavy fiction readers had better social skills—as measured by tests of social and empathic ability—than those who mainly read nonfiction.
    • Fiction is an ancient virtual reality technology that specializes in simulating human problems. Interesting theory. Is there any evidence for it beyond problem structure? But this model has flaws. As some critics have pointed out, fiction can make a terrible guide for real life. What if you actually tried to apply fictional solutions to your problems? You might end up running around like the comically insane Don Quixote or the tragically deluded Emma Bovary—both of whom go astray because they confuse literary fantasy with reality.
    • But there’s another problem with Pinker’s idea. It seems to depend on explicit memory—the type of memory we can consciously access. The simulator model depends on implicit memory—what our brains know but “we” don’t. Implicit memory is inaccessible to the conscious mind. It is behind all the unconscious processing that goes into driving a car, or swinging a golf club, or even navigating the rocky shoals of a cocktail party.
  • Dreaming stories during both day and night

    • We are at our most creative at night. When we sleep, the untired brain dreams richly, wildly, and at great length. Consciousness is altered in dreams but not extinguished. We just have a limited ability to remember the adventures we consciously experience throughout the night.
    • Whenever the mind is not absorbed in a mentally demanding task—say writing a paragraph like this one or doing some difficult calculations—it will get restless and skip off into la-la land. Daydreaming is the mind’s default state. We daydream when driving, when walking, when cooking dinner, when getting dressed in the morning, when staring off into space at work.
    • Every night of our sleeping lives, we wander through an alternate dimension of reality. In our dreams, we feel intense fear, sorrow, joy, rage, and lust. We commit atrocities; we suffer tragedies; sometimes we orgasm; sometimes we fly; sometimes we die. While the body lies dormant, the restless brain improvises original drama in the theaters of our minds.
    • The novelist John Gardner compares fictional stories to “vivid and continuous dreams,” but it’s just as accurate to call dreams “vivid and continuous stories.” 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.
    • Fight or flight is the rule in dreaming consciousness, and it goes on and on, night after night, with all too rare respites in the glorious lull of fictive elation.” Although there is some controversy about how to interpret the data, most dream researchers generally agree with Hobson: Dreamland is not a happy place.
    • Trouble is the fat red thread that ties together the fantasies of pretend play, fiction, and dreams, and trouble provides a possible clue to a function they all share: giving us practice in dealing with the big dilemmas of human life.
  • Dark side of stories

    • Schizophrenia has been called “the central mystery of psychiatry.” Schizophrenics are prey to a variety of bizarre beliefs, delusions, and hallucinations. For a long time, it was possible to dismiss links between madness and creativity as purely anecdotal: Vincent van Gogh carving off his ear.

      • Fiction writers are fully ten times more likely to be bipolar than the general population, and poets are an amazing forty times more likely to struggle with the disorder.
      • In psychiatrist Arnold Ludwig’s massive study of mental illness and creativity, The Price of Greatness, he found an 87 percent rate of psychiatric disorders in eminent poets and a 77 percent rate in eminent fiction writers—far higher than the rates he found among high achievers in nonartistic fields such as business, science, politics, and the military. Even college students who sign up for poetry-writing seminars have more bipolar traits than college students generally.
      • Creative writers are also at increased risk of unipolar depression and are more likely to suffer from psychoses such as schizophrenia. It is, therefore, not surprising that eminent writers are also much more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs, spend time in psychiatric hospitals, and kill themselves.
      • People who are mentally ill tend to have more artists in their families. And artists tend to have more mental illness in theirs (along with higher rates of suicide, institutionalization, and drug addiction).
    • Our hunger for meaningful patterns translates into a hunger for story. We automatically extract stories from the information we receive, and how—if there is no story there—we are only too happy to invent one.

      • Our tendency to impose stories where they do not exist, and nothing reveals it like a good conspiracy theory. Conspiracy theories—feverishly creative, lovingly plotted—are in fact fictional stories that some people believe. Conspiracy theorists connect real data points and imagined data points into a coherent, emotionally satisfying version of reality. They fascinate us because they are ripping good yarns, showcasing classic problem structure and sharply defined good guys and villains. They offer vivid, lurid plots that translate with telling ease into wildly popular entertainment.
      • In conspiracy theories, we have the storytelling mind operating at its glorious worst.
      • As David Aaronovitch explains in his book Voodoo Histories, Conspiracy theories originate and are largely circulated among the educated and middle class. The imagined model of an ignorant, priest-ridden peasantry or proletariat, replacing religious and superstitious belief with equally far-fetched notions of how society works, turns out to be completely wrong. It has typically been the professors, the university students, the managers, the journalists, and the civil servants who have concocted and disseminated the conspiracies.
      • Conspiratorial thinking is not limited to the stupid, the ignorant, or the crazy. It is a reflex of the storytelling mind’s compulsive need for meaningful experience. Conspiracy theories offer ultimate answers to a great mystery of the human condition: why are things so bad in the world? They provide nothing less than a solution to the problem of evil. In the imaginative world of the conspiracy theorist, there is no accidental badness. To the conspiratorial mind, shit never just happens.
  • Religion

    • The world’s priests and shamans knew what psychology would later confirm: if you want a message to burrow into a human mind, work it into a story.
    • Throughout the history of our species, sacred fiction has dominated human existence like nothing else. Religion is the ultimate expression of story’s dominion over our minds. The heroes of sacred fiction do not respect the barrier between the pretend and the real. They swarm through the real world, exerting massive influence. Based on what the sacred stories say, believers regulate the practices of their lives: how they eat, how they wash, how they dress, when they have sex, when they forgive, and when they wage total war in the name of everything holy.
    • Even now, in this brave age of brain science and genomics, God is not dead, dying, or really even ailing. Nietzsche would be disappointed.
    • The conventional secular explanation of religion is that humans invent gods to give order and meaning to existence.

      • Humans are born curious, and they must have answers to the big, unanswerable questions: Why am I here? Who made me? Where does the sun go at night? Why does giving birth hurt? What happens to “me” after I die—not my raggedy old carcass, but me, that endlessly chattering presence inside my skull?
      • This is, in essence, a by-product explanation of religion, and it is the one that most current evolutionary thinkers embrace.
      • We have religion because, by nature, we abhor explanatory vacuums. In sacred fiction, we find the master confabulations of the storytelling mind.
    • People have been pretty nasty throughout history, and over the past half millennium or so, Westerners have just been better at being nasty than anyone else. But this more balanced, if bleak, view of human history isn’t taught in our schools either. Throughout most of our history, we’ve taught myths.
  • Pros and cons of the intellectual guard

    • When we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. Now extrapolate. We humans are constantly marinating ourselves in fiction, and all the while it is shaping us, changing us.
    • They argue that entering fictional worlds “radically alters the way information is processed.” The more absorbed readers are in a story, the more the story changes them. Fiction readers who reported a high level of absorption tended to have their beliefs changed in a more “story-consistent” way than those who were less absorbed. Highly absorbed readers also detected significantly fewer “false notes” in stories—inaccuracies, infelicities—than less transported readers.
    • But it is the opposite for depressed people. Depressed people have lost their positive illusions; they rate their personal qualities much more plausibly than average. They are able to see, with terrible clarity, that they are not all that special. According to the psychologist Shelley Taylor, a healthy mind tells itself flattering lies. And if it does not lie to itself, it is not healthy. Why? Because, as the philosopher William Hirstein puts it, positive illusions keep us from yielding to despair: The truth is depressing. We are going to die, most likely after illness; all our friends will likewise die; we are tiny insignificant dots on a tiny planet.

      • Psychotherapy helps unhappy people set their life stories straight; it literally gives them a story they can live with. And it works.
  • Hero vs villain in stories

    • 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.
  • MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game)

    • In MMORPGs, players become characters in an unfolding story. They move through a physically vast and culturally rich virtual world that they share with thousands of other players. The virtual worlds have their own laws and customs. They have their own linguistic dialects, with vocabularies that can be very difficult for the uninitiated (called “noobs”) to master. (Some verbs: to gank, to grief, to nerf, to buff, to debuff, to twink, to gimp, to pwn.) They have warring tribes and thriving economies.
    • Imagine an average guy named Bob. Bob works in retail—shelving product, sweeping floors, manning the register. He drives through a bleak concrete landscape of big-box stores and fast-food joints. When he bowls, he bowls alone. He is not involved in civic life. He is in no real sense a member of a community, and his life is meaningless. His job asks so little of him, and he produces nothing of lasting value. But after work, Bob goes online and finds everything that is missing from his life. In MMORPG land, Bob has friends; he may even have a wife. He doesn’t live.
    • WoW (world of warcraft) achieves what it does because it bundles the creativity of many hundreds of collaborators: programmers, writers, social scientists, historians, visual artists, musicians, and others. Most great art is created by individuals, but WoW is the product of hundreds of creative people weaving the power of story art together.
    • Commentators frequently blame MMORPGs for an increasing sense of isolation in modern life. But virtual worlds are less a cause of that isolation than a response to it. Virtual worlds give back what has been scooped out of modern life. The virtual world is in important ways more authentically human than the real world. It gives us back community we want.
  • Story = Character + Predicament + Attempted Extrication. This is story’s master formula, and it is intensely strange.

III. Quotes

  • In short, it seems that the great dream of every statistician—of one day reading a copy of Hamlet handed over by an immortal supermonkey—is just a fantasy.
  • We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.
  • This book is about the primate Homo fictus (fiction man), the great ape with the storytelling mind. You might not realize it, but you are a creature of an imaginative realm called Neverland.
  • Story is for a human as water is for a fish.
  • While your body is always fixed at a particular point in space-time, your mind is always free to ramble in lands of make-believe.
  • As Wordsworth said, you have to murder in order to dissect.
  • It’s about how a set of brain circuits—usually brilliant, sometimes buffoonish—force narrative structure on the chaos of our lives.
  • Lord! When you sell a man a book you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue—you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night—there’s all heaven and earth in a book, in a real book I mean. — Christopher Morley, Parnassus on Wheel
  • Human minds yield helplessly to the suction of story. No matter how hard we concentrate, no matter how deep we dig in our heels, we just can’t resist the gravity of alternate worlds.
  • attention. If the storyteller is skilled, he simply invades us and takes over. There is little we can do to resist.
  • Like Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence, authors trick readers into doing most of the imaginative work. Reading is often seen as a passive act: we lie back and let writers pipe joy into our brains. But this is wrong. When we experience a story, our minds are churning, working hard.
  • Writers sometimes compare their craft to painting. Each word is a daub of paint. Word by word—brushstroke by brushstroke—the writer creates images that have all the depth and crispness of real life.
  • The writer is not, then, an all-powerful architect of our reading experience. The writer guides the way we imagine but does not determine it. A film begins with a writer producing a screenplay. But it is the director who brings the screenplay to life, filling in most of the details. So it is with any story. A writer lays down words, but they are inert. They need a catalyst to come to life. The catalyst is the reader’s imagination.
  • Even in an age of anxiety about the demise of the book, publishing books is still big business.
  • Similarly, we like biographies partly for the same reason we like novels: they both follow richly characterized lead protagonists through the struggles of their lives. And the most popular form of biography—the memoir—is notorious for the way it plays loose with facts in search of the grip of fiction.
  • In other words, we spend about half of our waking hours—one-third of our lives on earth—spinning fantasies.
  • The imagination is an awesome mental tool. While our bodies are always locked into a specific here and now, our imaginations free us to roam space-time. Like powerful sorcerers, all humans can see the future—not a clear and determined future, but a murky, probabilistic one.
  • Storytelling is the spine of televised sports.
  • Science, I argue, can help us make sense of storytelling. But some say that science is a grand story (albeit with hypothesis testing) that emerges from our need to make sense of the world. The storylike character of science is most obvious when it deals with origins: of the universe, of life, of storytelling itself.
  • The human imperative to make and consume stories runs even more deeply than literature, dreams, and fantasy. We are soaked to the bone in story.
  • If you feel as if your brain is being twisted into a knot, you’re not alone. I don’t know for sure whether story is an evolutionary adaptation or a side effect.
  • There is a yawning canyon between what is desirable in life (an uneventful trip to the grocery story) and what is desirable in fiction (a catastrophic trip). In this gap, I believe, lies an important clue to the evolutionary riddle of fiction.
  • Stories are pleasurable because they allow us to escape. Life is hard; Neverland is easy.
  • Stories the world over are almost always about people (or personified animals) with problems. The people want something badly—to survive, to win the girl or the boy, to find a lost child. But big obstacles loom between the protagonists and what they want. Just about any story—comic, tragic, romantic—is about a protagonist’s efforts to secure, usually at some cost, what he or she desires.
  • Whenever people come together in groups, they will potentially mate with one another, befriend one another, or fight one another.
  • Fiction is a powerful and ancient virtual reality technology that simulates the big dilemmas of human life.
  • As sleep researcher William Dement put it, “We experience a dream as real because,” from the brain’s perspective, “it is real.”
  • Since memories of our dreams are usually burned away with the morning light, they can’t be worth much to us.
  • Although the stories that sound-minded people tell themselves rarely go awry in the spectacular fashion of paranoid schizophrenics’, they often do go awry. This is part of the price we pay for having storytelling minds.
  • The storytelling mind is allergic to uncertainty, randomness, and coincidence. It is addicted to meaning. 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.
  • We live or die by the artist’s vision, sane or cracked. — John Gardner, On Moral Fiction
  • When we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard.
  • Some critics argue that most memoirs, not just the brazenly fraudulent ones, should be shelved in the fiction section of bookstores. Memoirists don’t tell true stories; they tell “truthy” ones.
  • Put differently, the past, like the future, does not really exist. They are both fantasies created in our minds. The future is a probabilistic simulation we run in our heads in order to help shape the world we want to live in. The past, unlike the future, has actually happened. But the past, as represented in our minds, is a mental simulation, too. Our memories are not precise records of what actually happened.
  • It’s not that we are all-around optimists; we describe ourselves in much more positive terms than other people, even our friends.
  • All of this research shows that we are the great masterworks of our own storytelling minds—figments of our own imaginations.
  • Story is the glue of human social life.
  • These are undeniably nervous times for people who make a living through story. The publishing, film, and television businesses are going through a period of painful change. But the essence of story is not changing. The technology of storytelling has evolved from oral tales, to clay tablets, to hand-lettered manuscripts, to printed books, to movies, televisions, Kindles, and iPhones.
  • Futurology is a fool’s game.
  • Of course, people will always have to unplug from their stories to visit the bathroom and the refrigerator.
  • Humans evolved to crave story. This craving has, on the whole, been a good thing for us. Stories give us pleasure and instruction. They simulate worlds so we can live better in this one.
  • Read fiction and watch it. It will make you more empathic and better able to navigate the world.
  • Don’t let moralists tell you that fiction degrades society’s moral fabric.
  • If you are a doubter, try to be more tolerant of the myths—national and religious—that help tie culture together.
  • Story is, for my girls, psychologically compulsory. It is something they seem to need in the way they need bread and love.