Review: The Storytelling Animal
What literary scholar Jonathan Gottschall is attempting to do here may seem quixotic: to pin down what makes stories such powerful drivers of human action, often by using more anecdotes and stories to do so.
From the often violent stories children make up to the wild tales our brains concoct while we sleep, Gottschall does make a good case that stories relate crucially to our survival. They often help us imagine worst-case scenarios, to play through possibilities, or to think ahead. Modern manifestations of story consumption, from binge watching Netflix to playing video games, may appeal to us simply because they plug into a “hardwired” readiness to invent and imagine.
References to studies are sprinkled across the book. Some of the science will likely be familiar to many readers, from the bizarre findings of split-brain research to Elizabeth Loftus’ well-known investigations of the fallibility of human memory. These examples are used to illustrate the brain’s remarkable tendency to confabulate.
To further explore the dark side of our storytelling habit, Gottschall relates the case of James Tilly Matthews’ paranoid delusions about a group of villains known as the “air loom gang”. But he casts Matthews’ fascinating delusions into the format of a short fantasy story to make the point that creativity and madness have much in common.
A discussion of conspiracy theories, including Alex Jones’ notorious Infowars website, and of the delusions that motivated some of history’s darkest figures adds to these observations. If Gottschall had written this book during or after America’s fateful 2016 election year, he might have attempted to equip the reader with better self-defense tools against propaganda and made-up nonsense.
As it is, the author’s objective here is simply to examine what makes stories special in our minds That question relates so deeply to the foundations of our emotional experience of the world that the answer is perhaps bound to be a little unsatisfactory to knowledge seekers. If, on the other hand, you’re simply looking for a good yarn about stories, you may get a kick out of this one. 3.5 stars, rounded down since I was hoping for more knowledge and less story.