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The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human

The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human

5.0 2
by Jonathan Gottschall

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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.


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

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review
We love a good story. Narrative is stitched intrinsically into the fabric of human psychology. But why? Is it all just fun and games, or does storytelling serve a biological function? These questions animate The Storytelling Animal, a jaunty, insightful new book by Jonathan Gottschall, who draws from disparate corners of history and science to celebrate our compulsion to storify everything around us.
—David Eagleman
Publishers Weekly
This at times cloying and circular extended essay—parts sociology, anthropology, psychology, and literary criticism—seeks to answer one of those sticky questions about human nature: why do we have a fundamental need for story? For Gottschall, who teaches English at Washington & Jefferson College, story serves an evolutionary purpose; it’s hard-wired into our brains. Story creation, like dreaming, helps us judge wrongdoing. It is also how we “practice the human skills of social life”—even if we don’t consciously remember the story and its lessons. Gottschall interprets “story” broadly: even the vagaries of memory are a form of fictionalization: false memories show how one’s past, like one’s future, is a realm of fantasy for which we are hard-wired. But Gottschall’s evolutionary argument is circular: we are hard-wired for fiction because it is good for us; and we are drawn to fiction because our brains are wired for it. Yet if the argument and approach are scattershot, the writing can be engaging. 74 photos. (Apr.)
From the Publisher
"Gottschall brings a light touch to knotty psychological matters, and he's a fine storyteller himself." ---Kirkus
Children's Literature - Barbara L. Talcroft
Our lives are enveloped in story, from childhood play to oral storytelling, memoirs, theater, television series, films, and songs. We tell ourselves stories, making up for flawed memories, and spend hours dreaming in stories we hardly remember. Gottschall takes readers through the many kinds of storytelling that affect our lives and asks how this propensity for fiction developed in the human brain and what good it has done us in a nonfiction world. He, along with anthropologists and psychologists, explores the evolution of story as a way of sexual selection (see Denis Dutton's The Art Instinct; Bloomsbury, 2009), a source of information in dealing with fraught situations, or as enjoyment of sex, violence, and aggressive humor without the risk of participation. Stories, Gottschall says, consist of a hero, trouble or conflict, and a search for alleviation; they draw us in to discover what happens and help us navigate life's challenges—stories are good for us. Especially thought-provoking is Gottschall's discussion of stories and myths of religion and nations. Do these inspire people to behave better or are they a hindrance to logical thought and action? He comes down on the side of story as a way of uniting a society in common purpose, helping each other, and enabling the community to stand firm against enemies. Such stories have their dark side, too: Hitler took as a model for his life and career Wagner's Rienzi—with catastrophic results. Will advancing technology make fiction obsolete? Gottschall believes storytelling is evolving to other forms: reality shows, computer games, and sophisticated MMORPGs (massively multiplayer on-line role-playing games), allowing participants to be heroes or villains in another world; story could take over human life. Readers who work with children and their stories will be grateful for Gottschall's thoughts about a sane future for the power of storytelling. Reviewer: Barbara L. Talcroft
Library Journal
Gottschall (English, Washington & Jefferson Coll..; Literature, Science, and a New Humanities) views narrative in terms of evolutionary biology in this insightful consideration of all things story. Witty and admirably self-restrained in examining arguably overimaginative storytellers and interpreters from Freud to 9/11 "Truthers" to James Frey, Gotschall suggests that individual story fixations are driven less by unconscious mysteries and more by an innate need to share, problem-solve, and have fun. While he predictably discusses stories from a variety of religions, his analytical observations about young girls at play, the codes of World Wrestling Federation performance, the ritualized arcs of reality TV, and the Lake Woebegone principle—we all think we are above average—are unconventional, entertaining, and instructive. Although the result is a collection of wide-ranging samples that do not altogether cohere, this effect is well suited to a book more concerned with stories than story. The work complements such emergent popularizations of neuroscience as Jonah Lehrer's equally anecdotal How We Decide. VERDICT Although this will interest neuroscientists, evolutionary biologists, and cognitive psychologists looking for creative takes on their complex research, it will mainly appeal to a general readership with a literary bent. Recommended but not essential. [See Prepub Alert, 11/3/11.]—Scott H. Silverman, Earlham Coll. Lib., Richmond, IN
Kirkus Reviews
A lively pop-science overview of the reasons why we tell stories and why storytelling will endure. Gottschall (English/Washington & Jefferson Coll.; Literature, Science, and a New Humanities, 2008, etc.) knows that any book about telling stories must be well-written and engaging, and his snapshots of the worlds of psychology, sleep research and virtual reality are larded with sharp anecdotes and jargon-free summaries of current research. His thesis is that humans' capacity to tell stories isn't just a curious aspect of our genetic makeup but an essential part of our being: We tell stories--in fiction, in daydreams, in nightmares--as ways to understand and work through conflicts, the better to be prepared when those conflicts arise in reality. To that end, novels are usually "problem stories" that have strong moral underpinnings. That also helps explain why there are so many fake memoirs, he argues--the instinct to give a conflict-and-resolution arc to stories leads many memoirists to tweak (and even invent) details to fit the pattern. Gottschall uses research into mental illness as a way to explore the intensity of our narrative urge, and he explores how imagined characters can have a real-life impact. (Consider Hitler's obsession with Wagner operas, or the influence of Uncle Tom's Cabin on abolition.) Though novels may change or become less popular, writes the author, the instinct for story is deathless, and his closing pages explore recent phenomena like live-action role-playing and massive multiplayer games for hints of what future storytelling will become. Is World of Warcraft better or worse for our brains than novels? Is violent storytelling a cause for concern? The author discusses such concerns only glancingly. For him, one kind of storytelling is largely as good as any other, but he convincingly argues that story goes on. Gottschall brings a light touch to knotty psychological matters, and he's a fine storyteller himself.

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt


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—should not—penetrate, reducing ancient mysteries to electrochemical storms in the brain or the timeless warfare among selfish genes. The fear is that if you explain the power of Neverland, you may end up explaining it away. As Wordsworth said, you have to murder in order to dissect. But I disagree.
   Consider the ending of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. McCarthy follows a man and his young son as they walk across a dead world, a “scabland,” in search of what they most need to survive: food and human community. I finished the novel flopped in a square of sunlight on my living room carpet, the way I often read as a boy. I closed the book and trembled for the man and the boy, and for my own short life, and for my whole proud, dumb species.
   At the end of The Road, the man is dead, but the boy lives on with a small family of “good guys.” The family has a little girl. There is a shard of hope. The boy may yet be a new Adam, and the girl may yet be his Eve. But everything is precarious. The whole ecosystem is dead, and it’s not clear whether the people can survive long enough for it to recover. The novel’s final paragraph whisks us away from the boy and his new family, and McCarthy takes leave of us with a beautifully ambiguous poem in prose.

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

   What does that mean? Is it a eulogy for a dead world that will never burgeon again with life, or is it a map of the “world in its becoming”? Might the boy still be alive, out in the living woods with the good guys, fishing trout? Or is the boy gone, slaughtered for meat? No science can answer these questions.
   But science can help explain why stories like The Road have such power over us. The Storytelling Animal is about the way explorers from the sciences and humanities are using new tools, new ways of thinking, to open up the vast terra incognita of Neverland. It’s about the way that stories—from TV commercials to daydreams to the burlesque spectacle of professional wrestling—saturate our lives. It’s about deep patterns in the happy mayhem of children’s make-believe and what they tell us about story’s prehistoric origins. It’s about how fiction subtly shapes our beliefs, behaviors, ethics—how it powerfully modifies culture and history. It’s about the ancient riddle of the psychotically creative night stories we call dreams. It’s about how a set of brain circuits—usually brilliant, sometimes buffoonish—force narrative structure on the chaos of our lives. It’s also about fiction’s uncertain present and hopeful future. Above all, it’s about the deep mysteriousness of story. Why are humans addicted to Neverland? How did we become the storytelling animal?


What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"Gottschall brings a light touch to knotty psychological matters, and he's a fine storyteller himself." —-Kirkus

Meet the Author

Jonathan Gottschall is an English professor at Washington & Jefferson College and the author The Rape of Troy: Evolution, Violence, and the World of Homer and Literature, Science, and a New Humanities.

Kris Koscheski, narrator, director, and audio aficionado, has worked on over four hundred audiobooks over the last twelve years. He has produced and directed many titles that have earned AudioFile Earphones Awards, Audie Awards, and Grammy nominations.

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The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
LysistrataBrookings More than 1 year ago
A well written book about why humans are enthralled with the concept of story and have been since our humble beginnings as hunters and gatherers. It's gripping, informational, and entertaining. I'd recommend it to anyone.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago