Book Review of “The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human”

Recently while walking through my local library I came across the book, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall. As a storyteller, I couldn’t pass it up! It turned out to be a thoroughly engaging read, outlining many of the ways that story works to mold and shape us as individuals and societies.

Here are a few of the interesting lessons I took from the book (some new to me and some familiar but given a deeper understanding):

  • For children, story is psychologically compulsory.

  • When children engage in pretend play, it goes beyond mere make-believe. It has a biological function, helping them to rehearse for adult life and develop their social and emotional intelligence. “Play is the work of children.”

  • Adults do not leave the world of “pretend play.” Instead, we find it in novels, films, dreams and fantasies.

    • Fiction serves as a sort of “virtual reality technology” that simulates human problems. As Janet Burroway puts it, “Literature gives us feelings for which we don’t have to pay. It allows us to love, condemn, condone, hope, dread and hate without any of the risks those feelings ordinarily involve.” In other words, it allows us to “try on” or “try out” a lot of feelings and experiences that might be too risky or too unsavory for us to practice in “real life.”

  • Most people believe that they know how to separate fact from fiction, but research shows otherwise.

    • In lab settings it has been shown that people can be misled to believe outlandish things (such as that brushing your teeth is bad for you or that you can “catch” madness by visiting an insane asylum) based on fictional narratives.

  • Fiction has probably taught us more about the world than anything else

    • Consider what you know about a topic such as police investigative work. Where does your knowledge come from? Most likely from TV shows like CSI or NCIS. Our knowledge of many other topics can be similarly linked to fictional accounts.
  • People’s deepest moral beliefs and values are modified by the fiction they consume.

    • A scientific study by Melanie Green and Timothy Brock showed that the more absorbed readers are in a story, the more the story changes them. We tend to read non-fiction critically and skeptically; whereas when absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard and are less able to detect inaccuracies. Gottschall points out that “people can be made to think differently about sex, race, class, gender, violence, ethics and just about anything else based on a single short story or television episode.”

This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of interesting insights and studies that Gottschall lays out in his book. And while I’m not in agreement with all of his conclusions, I definitely agree with him about the centrality of stories to the human experience and the fact that they will never disappear (although they may take on new forms!)

This book also confirmed the importance of my work as a storyteller and how great my responsibility is to my audiences. If fiction has such a profound impact on people’s minds and beliefs than I need to take the utmost care when selecting stories for telling. I need to realize that people’s thoughts and opinions are being shaped (almost unconsciously) by the stories I tell. Thus, while storytelling is fun, playful and imaginative, it is also serious business and I must treat it with the utmost respect.

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