Brain Pickings

The Storytelling Animal: The Science of How We Came to Live and Breathe Stories

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Where a third of our entire life goes, or what professional wrestling has to do with War and Peace.

“The universe is made of stories, not atoms,” poet Muriel Rukeyser memorably asserted, and Harvard sociobiologist E. O. Wilson recently pointed to the similarity between innovators in art and science, both of whom he called “dreamers and storytellers.” Stories aren’t merely essential to how we understand the world — they are how we understand the world. We weave and seek stories everywhere, from data visualization to children’s illustration to cultural hegemony. In The Storytelling Animal, educator and science writer Jonathan Gottschall traces the roots, both evolutionary and sociocultural, of the transfixing grip storytelling has on our hearts and minds, individually and collectively. What emerges is a kind of “unified theory of storytelling,” revealing not only our gift for manufacturing truthiness in the narratives we tell ourselves and others, but also the remarkable capacity of stories — the right kinds of them — to change our shared experience for the better.

Gottschall articulates a familiar mesmerism:

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.

Joining these favorite book trailers is a wonderful short black-and-white teaser animation:

One particularly important aspect of storytelling Gottschall touches on is the osmotic balance between the writer’s intention and the reader’s interpretation, something Mortimer Adler argued for decades ago in his eloquent case for marginalia. Gottschall writes:

The writer is not … 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.

In discussing the extent to which we live in stories, Gottschall puts in concrete terms something most of us suspect — fear, perhaps — on an abstract, intuitive level: the astounding amount of time we spend daydreaming.

Clever scientific studies involving beepers and diaries suggest that an average daydream is about fourteen seconds long and that we have about two thousand of them per day. In other words, we spend about half of our waking hours — one-third of our lives on earth — spinning fantasies. We daydream about the past: things we should have said or done, working through our victories and failures. We daydream about mundane stuff such as imagining different ways of handling conflict at work. But we also daydream in a much more intense, storylike way. We screen films with happy endings in our minds, where all our wishes — vain, aggressive, dirty — come true. And we screen little horror films, too, in which our worst fears are realized.

From War and Peace to pro wrestling, from REM sleep to the “fictional screen media” of commercials, from our small serialized personal stories on Facebook and Twitter to the large cultural stories of religious traditions, The Storytelling Animal dives into what science knows — and what it’s still trying to find out — about our propensity for storytelling to reveal not only the science of story but also its seemingly mystical yet palpably present power.

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