Stories are all around us. But what is it about the story that holds such a powerful grip on the human imagination? That’s the question that Jonathan Gottschall tackles in his new book, The Storytelling Animal. Stories can change our behavior. They can influence our perceptions. They may even have the potential to, quite literally, change the flow of history—or at least some parts of it.
In the following conversation, Gottschall explores the nature of human affinity for narrative and reflects on the future of story in the age of the Internet, video games, films, and ever-evolving media that may threaten to undermine—or at least, to change in unpredictable ways—the traditional bounds of our storytelling past.
MK: What was your inspiration for the book? Why did you choose psychology (as opposed to say, philosophy) as your main approach path?
JG: My work seeks to bridge the gap between the two cultures of the humanities and sciences. How can we use science to better understand fiction? And what can scientists learn from fiction and the other arts?
But the idea for this specific book came to me not from research but from a song. I was driving down the highway and happened to hear the country music artist Chuck Wicks singing “Stealing Cinderella”—a song about a little girl growing up to leave her father behind. Before I knew it, I was blind from tears, and I had to veer off on the road to get control of myself and to mourn the time—still more than a decade off—when my own little girls would fly the nest. I sat there on the side of the road feeling sheepish and wondering, “What just happened?”
Who hasn’t had a similar experience? When we submit to fiction--whether in novels, songs, or films—we allow ourselves to be invaded by storytellers who seize control of us cognitively and emotionally. I wrote the book to try to understand how stories—the fake struggles of fake people—could have such power over us.
MK: Why hasn’t this book been written before? In other words, why is it so easy for us to be taken in by story—and yet much more difficult to ask the question that you posed, why exactly it is that we are taken in?
JG: Well, I do draw on a lot of excellent research by people working in a similar vein. But I agree with the spirit of your question: If story is such a big deal in human life, why doesn’t it get more attention? I think it’s because, in general, we just aren’t fully aware of it. In the same way that plankton isn’t aware that it’s tumbling through salt water, we humans aren’t aware that we are constantly moving through story—from novels, to films, to religious myths, to dreams and fantasies, to jokes, pro wrestling, and children’s make believe.
Then there’s the problem of academic boundaries. In universities, we chop story to pieces and spread it across departments. Psychologists get dreams. Musicologists get song. Literary scholars get novels. Anthropologists and folklorists get traditional tales. And so on. This keeps us from seeing stories--from opera librettos to nightmares--as aspects of a unified mental process involving the construction of imaginative scenarios. And it keeps us from seeing how story infiltrates every aspect of how we live and think.
MK: Mind wandering, according to research by psychologist Daniel Gilbert, makes us unhappy. And yet it seems to be our brain’s default state. Do you see a balance between daydreaming—which, as you point out, we engage in all the time—and being "in the moment," so to speak?
JG: It would be nice if we could strike that balance, but I’m skeptical. Our daydreams, like our night dreams, usually just happen. Typically, we don’t will them into being, and it is very hard to suppress them (as anyone who has tried to quiet a racing mind at 4 AM knows). To me, this is so cool: our brains are constantly generating these little inner films, and “we” don’t really have a say in it.
MK: You talk about the fine line between creativity and insanity. How do we keep our storytelling in check, so that it is a productive and not a destructive force in our lives?
JG: The human mind is addicted to stories. We make them up all time, and we can easily be taken in by them. Once we latch on to a story (be it a religious narrative or a conspiracy theory) it’s hard to give it up. So we need to be wary of the power of story. But, on the other hand, a little fiction can be a good thing. Take our own life stories. We all have a story that we tell about ourselves—about who we are, what our formative experiences were, and what our lives mean. But psychologists have shown that these stories aren’t very trustworthy. They are based on distorted memories and wildly optimistic assessments of our own qualities. Yet, crafting these stories—and believing them—seems to be preserve our mental health. People who don’t overrate their own personal qualities tend to get depressed. So the little fictions we make up about ourselves are healthy, so long as they don’t cross over into narcissistic travesty.
MK: You raise some powerful examples of the ability of story to, quite literally, change the course of history, including that of Adolf Hitler. In describing Wagner’s effect on Hitler, you write, “But even historians who are skeptical of the Rienzi story do not deny that Wagner’s sprawling hero saga—with their Germain gods and knights, their Valkyries and giants, their stark portrayals of good and evil—helped shape Hitler’s character.” What makes a story so powerful? Could Hitler, for instance, have appropriated some other content—and used it to tell the same story of his destiny? In other words, was there a story that he wanted to tell, that he then superimposed on to Wagner’s sagas, or was the Wagner the real inspiration or cause behind Hitler’s changing identity?
JG: We’ll never know for sure. This is one of those counter-factual questions that historians love to speculate about—to tell historical stories about. Egomaniacal Hitler may have been primed to fasten on to a narrative like Wagner’s Rienzi—one that flattered his sense of vast personal promise. But when Hitler first saw Rienzi he was just sixteen; at that time he dreamed of conquering the world with art, not armies. He wanted to be a great painter. It seems possible that a different story could have moved Hitler—and thus history—in a different direction.
I use Hitler’s relationship to Wagner—and other less controversial instances of story changing history (like Uncle Tom’s Cabin)—as an entry point into psychological research. Studies show that we overestimate our immunities to story. Fiction shapes our attitudes, actions, and values more than we know. I think story is one of the most powerful shaping forces in human life.
MK: You recount an anecdote about your daughter, Abby, learning for the first time about Christopher Columbus. As you point out, “what Abigail was taught is mostly fiction, not history. It is a story that is simply wrong in most details and misleading in the rest.” You go on to note that, “Throughout most of our history, we’ve taught myths.” Is this tendency to mythologize the past a bad thing, or does it help us remember better by storifying events, so to speak? Is there a balance between story and factual accuracy?
JG: The standard story of Columbus’s discovery of the new world is much closer to myth than history. The dark side of Columbus’s journey is left out, and the heroic side (and there is a heroic side of it) is embellished. But myths have a purpose, and being factually “true” isn’t one of them. Myths modify and regulate behavior. They bond people together around a common identity. But myths have a dark side as well. Take the supernatural myths of religion. In 1869 the German evolutionist Gustav Jager prefigured modern theorists like David Sloan Wilson when he suggested that religion is “a weapon in the [Darwinian] struggle for survival.” As Jager’s language suggests, this doesn’t make religion a good thing. There are good things about religion, including the way its stories bind people into more harmonious collectives. But there is an obvious dark side to religion too: the way it is so readily weaponized. Religion draws co-religionists together and drives those of different faiths apart.
MK: You describe your daughters as spending a good part of their early years in Neverland—as, indeed, do most children. Why do we lose that childlike effortlessness of make believe? Would it be beneficial to nurture it and maintain it? What positive value is there in the types of adult game communities, such as LARP (live action role playing), that you describe?
JG: I admire LARPers. Most of us stop making believe sometime in middle childhood. But LARPers decide, as adults, that they want to re-enter Neverland, and so they do. The LARP community is small, but there’s now a huge number of grownups playing online versions of LARP like The World of Warcraft. These video games offer make-believe role-play inside a digital Neverland. For me, this all supports the Peter Pan principle: Humans are the species that just won’t grow up. We may stop acting out our stories, but we never actually leave Neverland, never stop pretending. We just gradually change how we do it. Instead of making up our stories and acting them out—as children do—we spend more and more time inside the fantasies created by others: novels, TV shows, plays, video games, and so on.
MK: You point out that people are reading less fiction because they are finding their stories elsewhere—TV, music, video games. Studies have shown that readers of fiction are more empathetic, have better social skills, and are generally more understanding than their non-fiction reading counterparts. (And you make the point in your book that stories are, essentially, moral.) Do you think we can get this same benefit from stories that aren’t fiction in the traditional sense—that is, stories told through non-literary means?
JG: Yes, I do. I think you find story’s primordial patterns in television, film, and video game narratives. I argue in the book, that fiction is both endlessly variable, and shockingly uniform. As you cross cultures and move around in history, you find the same basic concerns and the same basic story structure. The technology of story changes—from oral tales, to clay tablets, to medieval codices, to printed books, to movie screens, iPads, and Kindles. But the stories themselves don’t ever change. They have the same old obsessions. And that won’t change until human nature changes.
MK: You write, “The real threat isn’t that story will fade out of human life in the future; it’s that story will take it over completely.” That point of view contrasts, I think, with the approach of someone like Jane McGonigal, who argues in Reality is Broken that games could be the answer to all of our problems and that play is really our ideal state. Do you see your views as opposed or as complementary? What do you think of her argument?
JG: Reality is Broken is an interesting book, and I see our arguments as mainly complementary. I think we agree that the booming popularity of story-centric video games owes to the way that virtual worlds are becoming, in many ways, more appealing than real life (and these are still the early days; imagine what these games will be like a few decades from now). I guess I’m more pessimistic about the implications than McGonigal. I see storytelling moving in the direction of Star Trek’s holodeck. On the holodeck, Star Trek’s characters enter into holonovels, where they get to actually be the heroine of a romance novel or the hero of a detective story. The holodeck is a computerized walk-in closet that allows the user to simulate anything in absolutely realistic detail. But I think Star Trek’s creators underplay the holodeck’s destructive potential. If you had a technology that allowed you to live any story you wanted, why would you ever come out? Why would you ever want to stop being god?
Jonathan Gottschall is the author of “The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). He is an English professor at Washington and Jefferson College in Pennsylvania.