“The riddle of fiction comes to this: Evolution is ruthlessly utilitarian. How has the seeming luxury of fiction not been eliminated from human life?”
For some people, to study literature at all is to pick it apart until the very magic of story is lost; it ruins the experience. For others, closer examination offers the opportunity to engage more deeply with the work. Jonathan Gottschall’s book The Storytelling Animal is decidedly for this second group. Gottschall, like Richard Dawkins in The Magic of Reality, argues that understanding the science behind a complex phenomenon makes it more beautiful and meaningful, rather than less. The Storytelling Animal uses psychology, neuroscience and yes, storytelling, to examine the significance of narrative in human lives, and interrogates a number of possible theories as to why story, which is often described as frivolous or escapist, might have continued to exist across cultures and time.
Gottschall’s first task is defamiliarization; he strives to make the reader aware of the “weird and witchy” power story has over us all. This is a formidable challenge; much like telling someone not to think about purple elephants, it is almost impossible not to be transported by narrative, even while struggling to consciously examine it. Story is so natural to us that even very young children instinctively engage in creating narratives. Only after the reader has been asked to consider story from this unfamiliar vantage point does the author proceed to demonstrate the manifold ways in which story influences many aspects of our lives. Child’s play and dreams are only the most obvious; Gottschall marshals a range of studies to demonstrate that our everyday lives are just as plastic and prone to fictionalization. From memory to social media, we strive to impose narrative order on chaos. Moreover, fiction has the power to spill over into our lives and influence our actions and opinions. Fiction has the ability to take us unawares that persuasive non-fiction can only envy.
Gottschall’s work is on the short side (200 pages) given the amount of ground covered by the book, and the extensive bibliography that stands behind it (15 pages). The book moves rapidly from illustrating how the brain works when it encounters a story, to considering the role of story in learning, to discussing the significance of morality and fear in narrative. Gottschall has correlated existing material into a tantalizing and engaging read, but no new research is presented. This is a comprehensible look at the neuroscience related to our narrative impulses, but it is only the beginning of the story.