The Storytelling Animal


Jonathan Gottschall




Date Reviewed:

December 20, 2012

hen I read a work of non-fiction, I am hoping for at least one of several possible results: Perhaps the book will be a riveting account of some real life exploit, such as Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. Or I would like the book to teach me amazing things that I did not know, such Charles Mann's descriptions of the advanced civilizations that existed in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus - detailed in the book 1491. Or I want the book to be full of interesting stories that you can tell others, such as the Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. Unfortunately, I felt that The Storytelling Animal lacks all of these aspects. At no point while reading did I say "Wow, cool!" or "I didn't know that!".

Gottschall's book reveals such unsurprising details that children in all cultures will sponstaneously play. Boys will act out stories full of violence and conflict, while girls pretend to be mothers and organize their house. Gottschall tells us that humans spend many hours dreaming while asleep, and that these dreams may be practice scenarios for humans should they encounter a dangerous situation (despite occasional happy dreams of sex or flying, Gottschall says that most of our dreams are scary nightmares.) Just like a ball player will constantly work on his game to develop his skills, perhaps our scary dreams are our brains constantly preparing us for dangerous situations.

We constantly tell ourselves stories, each of us is a protagonist in our own epic drama. Even the worst criminals and sociopaths in history have a personal narrative that justifies their horrendous deeds. Our memories are plastic, and fallible. Even under high stress situations, where we THINK we recall in perfect detail the dramatic events, tests prove that those memories are false - for example, George W Bush described seeing video of the first plane hitting the tower in the 9/11 attacks, but no such video existed. But the fact that our most trusted memories are edited or completely invented will hardly comes as a surprise to most readers.

In an early chapter, we learn that many great artists and writers are also afflicted with mental disturbances. Some of the finest storytellers suffer from various mental diseases - is creativity linked to madness? Gottschall relates the results of split brain experiments, when the corpus callosum (which connects the left and right lobe of the brain) is severed so that the right and left sides can no longer communicate. If information is fed to one side of the brain, causing the patient to take an action, followed by the doctor asking that patient why they just took that action, the patient will immediately invent a plausible but completely false story. I think I read about experiments such as these twenty five years ago - while interesting, I didn't learn anything new.

Another chapter tells us fiction and stories are powerful - humans will naturally gravitate to a good story; a great speaker is one who can spin a good tale. We are told that novels such as Uncle Tom's Cabin, A Christmas Carol and To Kill A Mockingbird have all resulted in major changes in society. Adolf Hitler was so enamored by an opera by Wagner called Rienzi that it unfortunately shaped the rest of his life. Hitler became a great speaker, telling stories about the persecuted German population and the Aryan race.

In the final chapter, Gottschall assures us that the demise of reading is great overstated. True, novels may disappear or morph into some other format, but humans will always tell stories, whether it is through video games or some undeveloped technology similar to Star Trek's holodeck. Again, it this material was well presented but lacking in surprise. Overall, that was my opinion of this entire book - a so it was a disappointment for me, I had read a review on NPR that made it sound like this would be a better book. If you are interested in reading a better book about how our brains work, I thought Incognito by David Eaglemen was much more interesting.