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

A conversational tone and lots of pictures make this a quick read. Gottschall makes the case that storytelling is what makes us human. When we read, our imagination supplies most of the details, filling in the missing information. The writer is like a screenwriter and the reader is the movie director. Of course, stories appear not just in books, but also in video games, TV, jokes, urban legends, and in song lyrics.

Sportscasters often include stories: an Olympic athlete’s inspiring struggle, a basketball player who might switch teams, and the real or imagined beef between boxers. Commercials are short stories. History, politics, court cases, and even evolution and the Big Bang are stories.

Everyone has an imagination and everyone tells stories. People will invent a story when given random sentences, images, or geometric shapes moving around randomly. We invent stories for why someone gave us a dirty look or suddenly closed a window on their computer. Conspiracy theories are an extreme example of this.

Dreams and day dreams are our mind telling stories to itself. Our memories are not accurate or reliable video tapes of what actually happened. Instead, studies have shown our memories change over time in order to make what happened into a better story.

We tend to remember ourselves being better than we actually are. Most of us are somewhat delusional, rating ourselves as being above average in most things. However, this is healthy. People with a more accurate view of themselves tend to be depressed. A little self-deception is a good thing.

At the most basic level, all stories are about a character who tries to overcome some kind of problem. What’s the purpose of story? To help us learn? To attract mates? To exercise our mental muscles? To provide shared social values? Or just simply to have fun?

Some say the purpose of story is escapism, but if this is true, why are stories full of so much horrible things happening? When children play pretend, their stories often involve conflict and trouble. Are stories a mirror for life? No, stories are much more interesting than real life is. Gottschall believes story is a way to practice social skills. Stories allow us to experience love, hate, and dread without consequences. Stories give us vicarious experiences that sometimes feel as real as events that actually happen to us.

Like stories, dreams usually involve conflict and usually don’t feature normal boring stuff. Gottschall claims dreams are training for real life, but I’m not convinced. Dreams are usually so bizarre and unrealistic they can’t possibly help us live our normal lives. I think dreams are more akin to day dreams, but made weird because the parts of our brain that think logically are turned off for the night.

Gottschall tells us successful writers and their families have a higher than normal incidence of mental illness than the general population, but I don’t think this means mentally ill people are necessarily more creative. It might be that readers think they’re more creative and are therefore more likely to read their books.

People are willing to imagine any fantastical thing in a story, but rebel against anything that conflicts with their morals. Stories are full of moral depravity of course, but the stories themselves usually present the questionable behavior in order to condemn it. Most readers immediately reject stories that present immoral behavior as good.

Stories have been very influential over history both for good and for bad. The Iliad inspired Alexander the Great to become a conqueror. Hitler was inspired by Wagner. Uncle Tom’s Cabin changed a lot of people’s minds about slavery. Christmas wouldn’t be what it is today without A Christmas Carol. Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther inspired copy cat suicides. These are dramatic examples, though. Most fiction only influences society a little bit.

Psychology has shown fiction does mold our minds. We learn facts about the world. We learn morals. Fiction gives us hope and fear. Most people learn about police work not from real life or documentaries, but from fictional shows like Law and Order. Scary stories causes people more anxiety and insomnia than news stories about real horrors. Watching violent TV makes people more aggressive, at least in the short term.

Fiction, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is more effective at changing minds than non-fiction, like the slave narratives Uncle Tom’s Cabin was based on. Perhaps this is because fiction is more enjoyable to read. Fiction helps us empathize more and makes the real world less abstract.

Religions are full of stories because stories are the best way to impart morals. A list of rules or an essay isn’t as effective as a story if you want someone to change their behavior. We read non-fiction more critically. Studies show highly-absorbed fiction readers don’t notice inaccuracies in a story like more detached readers do. Since we read fiction with our guard down, messages can affect us easier. We empathize with characters and are moved emotionally, which is a more effective way of changing minds than appealing to facts and logic.

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