A provocative young scholar gives us the first book on the new science of storytelling: the latest thinking on why we tell stories, what stories reveal about human nature, what makes a story transporting, which plots and themes are universal, and what it means to have a storytelling brain—what are the implications for how we process information and think about the world?
A NYTimes.com Editor's Choice
A Los Angeles Times Book Prizes Finalist
“A jaunty, insightful new book . . . [that] draws from disparate corners of history and science to celebrate our compulsion to storify everything around us.”
—New York Times
Humans live in landscapes of make-believe. We spin fantasies. We devour novels, films, and plays. Even sporting events and criminal trials unfold as narratives. Yet the world of story has long remained an undiscovered and unmapped country. Now Jonathan Gottschall offers the first unified theory of storytelling. He argues that stories help us navigate life’s complex social problems—just as flight simulators prepare pilots for difficult situations. Storytelling has evolved, like other behaviors, to ensure our survival. Drawing on the latest research in neuroscience, psychology, and evolutionary biology, Gottschall tells us what it means to be a storytelling animal and explains how stories can change the world for the better. We know we are master shapers of story. The Storytelling Animal finally reveals how stories shape us.
“This is a quite wonderful book. It grips the reader with both stories and stories about the telling of stories, then pulls it all together to explain why storytelling is a fundamental human instinct.”
—Edward O. Wilson
“Charms with anecdotes and examples . . . we have not left nor should we ever leave Neverland.”—Cleveland Plain Dealer
Statisticians agree that if they could only catch some immortal monkeys, lock them up in a room with a typewriter, and get them to furiously thwack keys for a long, long time, the monkeys would eventually flail out a perfect reproduction of Hamlet—with every period and comma and “’sblood” in its proper place. It is important that the monkeys be immortal: statisticians admit that it will take a very long time.
Others are skeptical. In 2003, researchers from Plymouth University in England arranged a pilot test of the so-called infinite monkey theory—“pilot” because we still don’t have the troops of deathless supermonkeys or the infinite time horizon required for a decisive test. But these researchers did have an old computer, and they did have six Sulawesi crested macaques. They put the machine in the monkeys’ cage and closed the door.
The monkeys stared at the computer. They crowded it, murmuring. They caressed it with their palms. They tried to kill it with rocks. They squatted over the keyboard, tensed, and voided their waste. They picked up the keyboard to see if it tasted good. It didn’t, so they hammered it on the ground and screamed. They began poking keys, slowly at first, then faster. The researchers sat back in their chairs and waited.
A whole week went by, and then another, and still the lazy monkeys had not written Hamlet, not even the first scene. But their collaboration had yielded some five pages of text. So the proud researchers folded the pages in a handsome leather binding and posted a copyrighted facsimile of a book called Notes Towards the Complete Works of Shakespeare on the Internet. I quote a representative passage:
The experiment’s most notable discovery was that Sulawesi crested macaques greatly prefer the letter s to all other letters in the alphabet, though the full implications of this discovery are not yet known. The zoologist Amy Plowman, the study’s lead investigator, concluded soberly, “The work was interesting, but had little scientific value, except to show that ‘the infinite monkey theory’ is flawed.”
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.
But perhaps the tribe of statisticians will be consoled by the literary scholar Jiro Tanaka, who points out that although Hamlet wasn’t technically written by a monkey, it was written by a primate, a great ape to be specific. Sometime in the depths of prehistory, Tanaka writes, “a less than infinite assortment of bipedal hominids split off from a not-quite infinite group of chimp-like australopithecines, and then another quite finite band of less hairy primates split off from the first motley crew of biped. And in a very finite amount of time, [one of] these primates did write Hamlet.”
And long before any of these primates thought of writing Hamlet or Harlequins or Harry Potter stories—long before these primates could envision writing at all—they thronged around hearth fires trading wild lies about brave tricksters and young lovers, selfless heroes and shrewd hunters, sad chiefs and wise crones, the origin of the sun and the stars, the nature of gods and spirits, and all the rest of it.
Tens of thousands of years ago, when the human mind was young and our numbers were few, we were telling one another stories. And now, tens of thousands of years later, when our species teems across the globe, most of us still hew strongly to myths about the origins of things, and we still thrill to an astonishing multitude of fictions on pages, on stages, and on screens—murder stories, sex stories, war stories, conspiracy stories, true stories and false. 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. Neverland is your home, and before you die, you will spend decades there. If you haven’t noticed this before, don’t despair: story is for a human as water is for a fish—all-encompassing and not quite palpable. 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. And it does.
Yet 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. And we don’t know exactly how, or even if, our time in Neverland shapes us as individuals and as cultures. In short, nothing so central to the human condition is so incompletely understood.
The idea for this book came to me with a song. I was driving down the highway on a brilliant fall day, cheerfully spinning the FM dial. A country music song came on. My usual response to this sort of catastrophe is to slap franticly at my radio in an effort to make the noise stop. But there was something particularly heartfelt in the singer’s voice. So, instead of turning the channel, I listened to a song about a young man asking for his sweetheart’s hand in marriage. The girl’s father makes the young man wait in the living room, where he stares at pictures of a little girl playing Cinderella, riding a bike, and “running through the sprinkler with a big popsicle grin / Dancing with her dad, looking up at him.” The young man suddenly realizes that he is taking something precious from the father: he is stealing Cinderella.
Before the song was over, I was crying so hard that I had to pull off the road. Chuck Wicks’s “Stealing Cinderella” captures something universal in the sweet pain of being a father to a daughter and knowing that you won’t always be the most important man in her life.
I sat there for a long time feeling sad, but also marveling at how quickly Wicks’s small, musical story had melted me—a grown man, and not a weeper—into sheer helplessness. How odd it is, I thought, that a story can sneak up on us on a beautiful autumn day, make us laugh or cry, make us amorous or angry, make our skin shrink around our flesh, alter the way we imagine ourselves and our worlds. How bizarre it is that when we experience a story—whether in a book, a film, or a song—we allow ourselves to be invaded by the teller. The story maker penetrates our skulls and seizes control of our brains. Chuck Wicks was in my head—squatting there in the dark, milking glands, kindling neurons.
This book uses insights from biology, psychology, and neuroscience to try to understand what happened to me on that bright fall day. I’m aware that the very idea of bringing science—with its sleek machines, its cold statistics, its unlovely jargon—into Neverland makes many people nervous. Fictions, fantasies, dreams—these are, to the humanistic imagination, a kind of sacred preserve. They are the last bastion of magic. They are the one place where science cannot—sh...
"A jaunty and insightful new book...[that] celebrate[s] our compulsion to storify everything around us. —New York Times Sunday Book Review, Editor's Choice
"[An] insightful yet breezily accessible exploration of the power of storytelling and its ability to shape our lives...[that is] packed with anecdotes and entertaining examples from pop culture." —The Boston Globe
"The Storytelling Animal is informative, but also a lot of fun.... Anyone who has wondered why stories affect us the way they do will find a new appreciation of our collective desire to be spellbound in this fascinating book." BookPage
"Stories are the things that make us human, and this book's absorbing, accessible blend of science and story shows us exactly why." —Minneapolis Star Tribune.
"This is a work of popular philosophy and social theory written by an obviously brilliant undergraduate teacher. The gift for the example is everywhere. A punchy line appears on almost every page." —The San Francisco Chronicle
"A lively pop-science overview of the reasons why we tell stories and why storytelling will endure..[Gottschall's] snapshots of the worlds of psychology, sleep research and virtual reality are larded with sharp anecdotes and jargon-free summaries of current research... Gottschall brings a light tough to knotty psychological matters, and he’s a fine storyteller himself."
"They say we spend multiple hours immersed in stories every day. Very few of us pause to wonder why. Gottschall lays bare this quirk of our species with deft touches, and he finds that our love of stories is its own story, and one of the grandest tales out there—the story of what it means to be human."
—Sam Kean, author of The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements
"Story is not the icing, it’s the cake! Gottschall eloquently tells you ‘how come’ in his well researched new book."
—Peter Guber, CEO, Mandalay Entertainment and author of the #1 New York Times bestseller, Tell To Win
"This is a quite wonderful book. It grips the reader with both stories and stories about the telling of stories, then pulls it all together to explain why storytelling is a fundamental human instinct."
—Edward O. Wilson, University Research Professor and Honorary Curator in Entomology, Harvard University
"The Storytelling Animal is a delight to read. It's boundlessly interesting, filled with great observations and clever insights about television, books, movies, videogames, dreams, children, madness, evolution, morality, love, and more. And it's beautifully written—fittingly enough, Gottschall is himself a skilled storyteller."
— Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology at Yale and author of How Pleasure Works
"Like the magnificent storytellers past and present who furnish him here with examples and inspiration, Jonathan Gottschall takes a timely and fascinating but possibly forbidding subject — the new brain science and what it can tell us about the human story-making impulse — and makes of it an extraordinary and absorbing intellectual narrative. The scrupulous synthesis of art and science here is masterful; the real-world stakes high; the rewards for the reader numerous, exhilarating, mind-expanding."
— Terry Castle, Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities, Stanford University
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