The Storytelling Animal | Reflections & Notes

Jonathan Gottschall. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Mariner Books, 2012. (248 pages)


Every now and then a book and its ideas strike my discovery bone with just the right frequency and intensity that I find myself captivated by a whole new resonance in the universe. This is one of those books.

First, I have long considered “story” to be a deeply intrinsic aspect of our humanity. However, the diverse ways in which “story” is explored here bring understanding to virtually every corner of human behavior. Could “story” be the most fundamental definition of what it means to be human? Is “story” the “deep metaphysical substrate” of our existence? I find “story,” its origins, its persistence, and its application, to have profound explanatory power, and that has tremendous implications.

Second, as a person who has journeyed my entire life through religion and science, faith and reason, “story” brings it all together, converges the apparent conflicts, and makes sense of the perplexing contradictions that our species holds. I concur, that it is better to call us Homo fictus, rather than Homo sapiens, as it is often questionable whether we, as a species, are wise. There is no question whether or not we tell stories. To recognize both religion and science as “stories,” brings us that much closer to transcendence.

With that, I was disappointed with the conclusion of the book, as there was–ahem–no climax. The ending of the book fizzled with a list of applications. While I welcome the practical guidance, I was hoping for a “unified theory” of story that could lead us into the future. To show my cards, I am ever wondering if the grounding novel that could still have the potential to inform the most important elements of the human drama can still be found in בראשית ברא אלהים את השמים ואת הארץ?



…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. (xiii)

We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories. (xiv)

| This book is about the primate Homo fictus (fiction man), the great ape with the storytelling mind. …you are a creature of an imaginative realm called Neverland. (xiv)

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. (xiv)

cf. Chuck Wicks’s “Stealing Cinderella”:

Before the song was over, I was crying so hard that I had to pull of the road. (xv)

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 re the only place where science cannot–should not–penetrate, reducing ancient mysteries to electrochemical storms in the brain or the timeless warfare among selfish (xv) genes. The fear int hat 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. (xvi)

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 incognito 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 reveal 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? (xvii)

1. The Witchery of Story

Human minds yield helplessly to the suction of story. No matter how hard we concentrate, no matter how deep we dig in our heels, we just can’t resist the gravity of alternative worlds. (3)

The writer is not, then, an all-powerful architect of our reading experience. The writer guide the way we imagine but does not determine it. (5)


One of the puzzles this book addresses is not just story’s existence–which is strange enough–but story’s centrality. (8)

While our bodies are always locked into a specific here and now, our imaginations free us to roam space-time. Like powerful sorcerers, all humans can see the future–not a clear and determined future, but a murky, probabilistic one. (11)


Artist’s rendering of the big bang. Science, I argue, can help us make sense of storytelling. But some day that science is a grand story (albeit with hypothesis testing) that emerges from our need to make sense of the world. The storyline character of science is most obvious when it deals with origins: of the universe, of life, of storytelling itself. As we move back in time, the links between science’s explanatory stories and established facts become fewer and weaker. The scientist’s imagination becomes more adventurous and fecund as he or she is forced to infer more and more from less and less.

The human imperative to make and consume stories runs even more deeply than literature, dreams, and fantasy. We are soaked to the bone in story. | But why? (18)


!Kung San storyteller, 1947.

2. The Riddle of Fiction

…why do humans tell stories at all? The answer may seem obvious: stories give us joy. But it isn’t obvious that stories should give us joy, at least not in the way it’s biologically obvi-(23)ous that eating or sex should give us joy. It is the joy of story that needs explaining. (24)

| The riddle of fiction comes to this: Evolution is ruthlessly utilitarian. How has the seeming luxury of fiction not been eliminated from human life? (24)

Real art creates myths a society can live by instead of die by. – John Gardner

These and other theories are all plausible, and we’ll return to them later. But before doing so, we need to tackle a different possibility: that story may be for nothing at all. At least not in biological terms. (28)


What are stories for? Nothing. The brain is not designed for story; there are glitches in its design that make it vulnerable to story. Stories, in all their variety and splendor, are just lucky accidents of the mind’s jury-rigged construction. Story may educate us, deepen us, and give us joy. Story may be one of the things that makes it most worthwhile to be human. But that doesn’t mean story has a biological purpose. (29)

| Storytelling, in this view, is nothing like the opposable thumb–a structure that helped our ancestors survive and reproduce. In this view, story is more akin to the lines on your palm. No matter what your fortuneteller claims, the lines are not maps of your future. They are side effects of the flexion of the hand. (29)

Other evolutionary thinkers find this side-effect view deeply unsatisfactory. No way, they insist. If story were just pleasurable frippery, then evolution would have long ago eliminated it as a waste of energy. The fact that story is a human universal is strong evidence of biological purpose. Well, maybe. But is it really so easy for natural selection to target the genes that lead me to waste my time on Funny People and Hamlet–time that could be spent earning money or procreating or doing any number of other things with obvious evolutionary benefits? (30)

| No. Because my strong attraction to fiction is deeply interwoven with my attraction to gossip and sex and the thrill of aggression. In short, it would be difficult to get rid of the evolutionary bathwater of story without also throwing out the baby–without doing violence to the psychological tendencies that are clearly functional and important. (30)

| If you feel as if your brain is being twisted into a knot, you’re not alone. I don’t know for sure whether story is an evolutionary adaptation or a side effect, and neither at this point does anyone else. Science consists of repeated rounds of (30) conjecture and refutation, and when it comes to this particular question–“Why story?”–we are mainly in a conjectural phase. My own view is that we probably gravitate to story for a number of different evolutionary reasons. (31)


Children’s play is not escapist. It conforms the problems of the human condition head-on. (32)

Whatever else is going on in this network of melodramas, the themes are vast and wondrous. Images of good and evil, birth and death, parent and child, move in and out of ht real and the pretend. There is no small talk. The listener is submerged in philosophical position papers, a virtual recapitulation of life’s enigmas. – Vivian Paley

Children’s pretend play is clearly about many things: movies and babies, monsters and heroes, spaceships and unicorns. And it is also about only one thing: trouble. Sometimes the trouble is routine, as when, playing “house,” the howling baby won’t take her bottle and the father can’t find his good watch. But often the trouble is existential. (33)


Sex differences in children’s play reflect the fact that biological evolution is slow, while cultural evolution is fast. (41)


A man once slaughtered a pig while his children were looking on. When they started playing in the afternoon, one child said to the other: “You be the little pig, and I’ll be the butcher,” whereupon he took an open blade and thrust it into his brother’s neck. Their mother, who was upstairs in a room bathing the youngest child in a tub, heard the cries of her other child, quickly ran downstairs, and, when she saw what had happened, drew the knife out of the child’s neck and, in a rage, thrust it into the heart of the child who had been the butcher. She then rushed back to the house to see what her other child was doing in the tub, but in the meantime it had drowned in the bath. The woman was so horrified that she fell into a state of utter despair, refused to be consoled by the servants, and hanged herself. When her husband returned home from the fields and saw this, he was so distraught that he died shortly thereafter. – “How the Children Played Butcher with Each Other”

…why are the stories of Homo sapiens fixated on trouble? (44)

3. Hell Is Story-Friendly


Fiction is usually seen as escapist entertainment. … Of course stories give pleasure, but why? | …stories are pleasurable because they allow us to escape. Life is hard; Neverland is easy. (48)

But it’s hard to reconcile the escapist theory of fiction with the deep patterns we find in the art of storytelling. If the escapist theory were true, we’d expect stories to be mainly about pleasurable wish fulfillment. (48)

…if fiction offers escape, it is a bizarre sort of escape. Our various fictional worlds are–on the whole–horroscapes. Fiction may temporarily free us from our troubles, but it does so by ensnaring us in new sets of troubles–in imaginary worlds of struggle and stress and mortal woe. (49)

| There is a paradox in fiction that was first noticed by Aristotle in the Poetics. We are drawn to fiction because fiction gives us pleasure. But most of what is actually in fiction is deeply unpleasant: threat, death, despair, anxiety, Sturm und Drang. (49)

In short, regardless of genre, if there is no knotty problem, there is no story. (49)


So-called hyperrealist fiction does away with the old plot contrivances of traditional fiction. It presents wafers of life as we actually experience it.

In the 1891 novel New Grub Street by George Gissing, a character named Harold Biffen writes a novel called Mr Bailey, Grocer, which describes the life of an ordinary grocer in absolutely realistic detail and with zero dramatic shaping. Biffen’s novel is “unutterably boring” by design; it is about the dull monotony of a man’s life. The novel is a work of art but sheer drudgery to read. Disappointed in love and in art, Biffen ends up poisoning himself.

Hyperrealism is interesting as an experiment, but like most fiction that breaks with the primordial conventions of storytelling, almost no one can actually stand to read it. Hyperrealist fiction is valuable mainly for helping us see what fiction is by showing us what it isn’t. Hyperrealism fails for the same reason that pure wish fulfillment does. Both lack the key ingredient of story: the plot contrivance of trouble. (51)


The idea that stories are about trouble is so commonplace as to verge on cliché. but the familiarity of this fact has numbed us to how strange it is. (52)

Stories the world over are almost always about people (or personified animals) with problems. … Just about any story–comic, tragic, romantic–is about a protagonist’s efforts to secure, usually at some cost, what he or she desires. (52)

Most people think of fiction as a wildly creative art form. But this just shows how much creativity is possible inside a (53) prison. Almost all story makers work within the tight confines of problem structure, whether knowingly or not. They write stories around a pattern of complications, crisis, and resolution. (54)

There is a universal grammar in world fiction, a deep pattern of heroes confronting trouble and struggling to overcome. (55)

As many scholars of world literature have noted, stories revolve around a handful of master themes. Stories universally focus on the great predicaments of the human condition. Stories are about sex and love. They are about the fear of death and the challenges of life. And they are about power: the desire to wield influence and to escape subjugation. Stories are not (55) about going to the bathroom, driving to work, eating lunch, having the flue, or making coffee–unless those activities can be tied back to the great predicaments. (56)

| Why do stories cluster around a few big themes, and why do they hew so closely to problem structure? Why are stories this way instead of all the other ways they could be? I think that problem structure reveals a major function of storytelling. It suggests that the human mind was shaped for story, so that it could be shaped by story. (56)


Practice is important. … According to evolutionary thinkers such as Brian Boyd, Steven Pinker, and Michelle Scalise Sugiyama, story is where people go to practice the key skills of human social life. (57)

Janet Burroway argues that l ow-cost vicarious experience–especially emotional experience–is the primary benefit of fiction. (57)

Literature offers feelings for which we don’t have to pay. It allows us to love, condemn, condone, hope, dread, and hate without any of the risks those feelings ordinarily involve. – Janet Burroway

The psychologist and novelist Keith Oatley calls stories the flight simulators of human social life. (58)

So, this line of reasoning goes, we seek story because we enjoy it. But nature designed us to enjoy stories so we would get the benefit of practice. Fiction is an ancient virtual reality technology that specializes in simulating human problems. Interesting theory. Is there any evidence for it beyond problem structure? (59)


Newborn infants imitating facial expressions. Andrew Meltzoff (pictured here) and his colleagues argue that mirror neurons may help explain how newborns as young as forty minutes old can imitate facial expressions and manual gestures.

Mirror neurons may also be the basis of our ability to run powerful fictional simulations in our heads. (60)

It is an axiom of neuroscience that “cells (63) that fire together wire together.” When we practice a skill, we improve because repetition of the task establishes denser and more efficient neural connections. This is why we practice: to lay down grooves in our brains, making our actions crisper, faster, surer. (64)

In one study, [Keith Oatley, Raymond Mar, and their colleagues] found that heavy fiction readers had better social skills–as measured by tests of social and empathic ability–than those who mainly read nonfiction. (66)


So here is the central idea as we’ve developed it to this point. Fiction is a powerful and ancient virtual reality technology that simulates the big dilemmas of human life. When we pick up a book or turn not he TV–whoosh!–we are teleported into a parallel universe. We identify so closely with the struggles of the protagonists that we don’t just sympathize with them; we strongly empathize with them. We feel their happiness and desire and fear; our brains rev up as though what is happening to them is actually happening to us.

| The constant firing of our neurons in response to fictional stimuli strengthens and refines the neural pathways that lead to skillful navigation of life’s problems. From this point of view, we are attracted to fiction not because of an evolutionary glitch, but because fiction is, on the whole, good for us. This is because human life, especially social life, is intensely complicated and the stakes are high. Fiction allows our brains to practice reacting to the kinds of challenges that are, and always were, most crucial to our success as a species. And as we’ll see, we don’t stop simulating when the sun goes down. (67)

4. Night Story

Who has not wondered, as I did in the sweaty aftermath of my desert dream, why his brain decided to stay up all night just to torture itself? Why do we dream? (71)

Dreams, like hands, may have multiple functions. For example, there is some evidence that dreams may help us file new experiences in the correct bins of short- and long-term memory. Many psychologists and psychiatrists believe that dreams may also be a form of auto therapy, helping us to cope (72) with the anxieties of our waking lives. Or, as the Nobel laureate Francis Crick proposed, dreams may help us weed useless information out of the mind. For Crick, dreams were a disposal system: “We dream to forget.” (73)

Still others believe that dreams have no purpose whatsoever. (73)

Our dreams were not designed by nature to serve any fiction…Nothing, nada, just noise, like the gurgling of the stomach or the sound of the heart. – One Flanagan

It is a useless by-product of all the useful work the sleeping brain does. Why did I dream my desert dream? For no reason at all. (73)

| The by-product theory of dreams goes by the acronym RAT (random activation theory). RAT is based on the idea that the brain has serious work to do at night, especially during REM sleep. (73)

According to RAT, these storytelling circuits have a flaw: they never learn that the clatter and noise of the sleeping brain is meaningless. Instead, they treat that clatter just like the information that streams in during waking hours, trying to turn it into a coherent narrative. Our inner storyteller does this for no practical reason. It just does it because it has a lifelong case of insomnia and because it is addicted to story–it simply can’t help it. (73)

But perhaps most damaging to RAT is the evidence that dreaming is not limited to humans but is widespread in other animals. REM, dreams, and the brain blockades that make dreaming safe have apparently been conserved across widely differing species, suggesting that dreams have value. (76


Jouvet raised the possibility that dreams are for practice. In dreams, animals rehearse their responses to the sorts of problems that are most germane to their survival. Kitties practice on kitty problems. Rats practice on rat problems. Humans practice on human problems. The dream is a virtual reality simulator where people and other animals hone responses to life’s big challenges. (78)



Bike riding is an example of how we can learn something, and learn it well, without our conscious minds having a clue. Our brains know a great deal that “we” don’t. (85)

5. The Mind Is a Storyteller


cf. Kay Redfield Jamison, Touched with Fire. Arnold Ludwig, The Price of Greatness.

Could it be that something about the writer’s life–the loneliness, the frustration, the long rambles through imagination–actually triggers mental illness? Possibly. But studies of the relatives of creative writers reveal an underlying genetic component. People who are mentally ill tend to have more artists in their families (especially among first-degree relatives). And artists tend to have more mental illness in theirs (along with higher rates of suicide, institutionalization, and drug addiction). (93)


cf. Joseph Bogen.

cf. Michael Gazzaniga (see Whose In Charge?)

The left brain is a classic know-it-all; when it doesn’t know the answer to a question, it can’t bear to admit it. The left brain is a relentless plainer, and it would rather fabricate a story than leave something unexplained. (99)

The storytelling mind is not created when the scalpel cuts into the corpus callous. Splitting the brain just pins it down for study. (99)


After almost five decades of studying the tale-spinning homunculus who resides in the left brain, Michael Gazzaniga has concluded that this little man–for all of his undeniable virtues–can also be a bumbler. The storytelling mind is allergic to uncertainty, randomness, and coincidence. It is addicted to meaning. If the storytelling mind cannot find meaningful patterns in the world, it will try to impose them. In short, the storytelling mind is a factory that churns out true stories when it can, but will manufacture lies when it can’t. (103)


Image of a “face” on Mars taken by Viking I in 1976. While some seized on the face as evidence of a Martian civilization, higher-resolution images showed that the “face” is just an ordinary Martian hill.

The human mind is tuned to detect patterns, and it is biased toward false positives rather than false negatives. The same (103) mental software that makes us very alert to human faces and figures causes us to see animals in clouds or Jesus in griddle marks According to psychologists, this is part of a “mind design” that helps us perceive meaningful patterns in our environments. (104)

| Our hunger for meaningful patterns translates into hunger for story. (104)

Human beings like stories. Our brains have a natural affinity not only for enjoying narratives and learning from them but also for creating them. In the same way that your mind sees an abstract pattern and resolves it into a face, your imagination sees a pattern of events and resolves it into a story. – James Wallis

[via: This conversation reminded me of the Star Wars Medal ceremony sans music:]


cf. Norman Maier “two cord” puzzle.

The stories were confabulations–lies, honestly told.


Conspiracy theories exert a powerful hold on the human imagination–yes, perhaps even your imagination–not despite structural parallels with fiction, but in large part because of them. (111)

Conspiracy theories originate and are largely circulated among the educated and middle class. The imagined model of an ignorant, priest-ridden peasantry or proletariat, replacing religious and superstitious belief with equally far-fetched notions of how society works, turns out to be completely wrong. It has typically been the professors, the university students, the managers, the journalists, and the civil servants who have concocted and disseminated the conspiracies.  – David Aaronovitch, Voodoo Histories

Conspiracy theories are not, then, the province of a google-eyed lunatic fringe. Conspiratorial thinking is not limited to the stupid, the ignorant, or the crazy. It is a reflex of the storytelling mind’s compulsive need for meaningful experience. Conspiracy theories offer ultimate answers to a great mystery of the human condition: why are things so bad in the world? They provide nothing less than a solution to the problem of evil. In the imaginative world of the conspiracy theorist, there is no accidental badness. To the conspiratorial mind, shit never just happens. History is not just one damned thing after another, and only dopes and sheeple believe in coincidences. For this reason, conspiracy theories–no matter how many devils they invoke–are always consoling in their simplicity. Bad things do not happen because of a wildly complex swirl of abstract historical and social variables. They happen because bad men live to stalk our happiness. And you can fight, and possibly even defeat, bad men. If you can read the hidden story. (116)

6. The Moral of the Story

In traditional societies, truths about the spirit world were conveyed not through lists or essays–they were conveyed through story. The world’s priests and shamans knew what psychology would later confirm: if you want a message to burrow into a human mind, work it into a story. (118)

Throughout the history of our species, sacred fiction has dominated human existence like nothing else. Religion is the ultimate expression of story’s dominion over our minds. (119)

Religion is a human universal, present–in one form or another–in all of the societies that anthropologists have visited and archaeologists have dug up. Even now, in this brave age of brain science and genomics, God is not dead, dying, or really even ailing. (119)

But why did we evolve to be religious? How did dogmatic faith in imaginary beings not diminish our ability to survive and reproduce? How could the frugal mechanisms of natural selection not have worked against religion, given the high price of religious sacrifices, rituals, prohibitions, taboos, and commandments? (120)

This is, in essence, a by-product explanation of religion, (120) and it is the one that most current evolutionary thinkers embrace. We have religion because, by nature, we abhor explanatory vacuums. In sacred fiction, we find the master confabulations of the storytelling mind. (121)

In his trailblazing book Darwin’s Cathedral, the biologist David Sloan Wilson proposes that religion emerged as a stable part of all human societies for a simple reason: it made them work better. (121)

Religion is a united system of beliefs and practices…which unite into one single moral community called a Church all those who adhere to them. – Émile Durkheim

The science writer Nicholas Wade expresses the heart of Wilson’s idea succinctly; the evolutionary function of religion “is to bind people together and make them put the group’s interests ahead of their own.”



A depiction of Columbus arriving in the New World by Dióscoro Puebla (1831-1901)

Stories about Columbus, Squanto and the first Thanksgiving, George Washington’s inability to lie, and so on, serve as national creation myths. The men at the center of these stories are presented not as flesh-and-blood humans with flaws to match their virtues, but as the airbrushed leading men of hero stories. The purpose of these myths is not to provide an objective account of what happened. It is to tell a story that binds a community together–to take pluribus and make unum. (124)

Throughout most of our history, we’ve taught myths. The myths tell us that not only are we the good guys, but we are the smartest, boldest, best guys that ever were. (125)



Story runs on poetic justice, or at least on our hopes for it. (131)

…most of this fiction is still moral fiction: it puts us in the position of approving of decent, prosocial behavior and disapproving of the greed of antagonists–of characters who are all belly and balls. As novelists such as Leo Tolstoy and John Gardner have argued, fiction is, in its essence, deeply moral. Beneath all of its brilliance, fiction tends to preach, and its sermons are usually fairly conventional. (132)

Humans live great chunks of their lives inside fictional stories–in worlds where goodness is generally endorsed and rewarded and badness is condemned and punished. These patterns don’t just reflect a moralistic bias in human psychology, they seem to reinforce it. (134)

Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. – Shelley

…for a society to function properly, people have to believe in justice. They have to believe that there are rewards for doing right and punishments for doing wrong. And, indeed, people generally do believe that life punishes the vicious and rewards the virtuous. This is despite the fact that, as [Markus] Appel puts (135) it, “this is patently not the case.” Bad things happen to good people all the time, and most crimes go unpunished. (136)

Appel concludes that fiction, by constantly marinating our brains in the theme of poetic justice, may be partly responsible for the overly optimistic sense that the world is, not he whole, a just place. And yet the fact that we take this lesson to heart may be an important part of what makes human societies work. (136)

A film takes a motley association of strangers and syncs them up. It choreographs how they feel and what they think, how fast their hearts beat, how hard they breathe, and how much they perspire. A film melds minds. It imposes emotional and psychic unity. Until the lights come up and the credits roll, a film makes people one. (136)

Story, in other words, continues to fulfill its ancient function of binding society by reinforcing a set of common values and strengthening the ties of common culture. Story en-(137)culturates the youth. It defines the people. It tells us what is laudable and what is contemptible. It subtly and constantly encourages us to be decent instead of decadent. Story is the grease and glue of society: by encouraging us to behave well, story reduces social friction while uniting people around common values. Story homogenizes us; it makes us one. This is part of what Marshall McLuhan had in mind with his idea of the global village. Technology has saturated widely dispersed people with the same media and made them into citizens of a village that spans the world. (138)

7. Ink People Change the World

cf. Alois Schicklguber story, and his son, Adolfus.

Baby portrait of Adolf Hitler. Undated.

Hitler is one of the few individuals of whom it can be said with absolute certainty: without him, the course of history would have been different. – Ian Kershaw

Historians have, therefore, speculated endlessly about whether the twentieth century might have taken a gentler turn if Hitler had been admitted to art school, or if he had not attended Rienzi that night in 1906 and gotten drunk on a fantasy of himself as his nation’s savior. (141)

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

Wagner was not just a brilliant composer. He was also an extreme German nationalist, a prolific writer of inflammatory political tracts, and a virulent anti-Semite who wrote of a “grand solution” to the Jewish menace long before the Nazis put one in place. (143)


In recent decades, roughly corresponding with the rise of TV, psychology has begun a serious study of story’s effects on the human mind. Research results have been consistent and robust: fiction does mold our minds. Story–whether delivered through films, books, or video games–teaches us facts about the world; influences our moral logic; and marks us with fears, hopes, and anxieties that alter our behavior, perhaps even our personalities. (148)

Why are we putty in a storyteller’s hands? One possibility, to borrow the words of Somerset Maugham, is that fiction writers mix the powder (the medicine) of a message with the sugary jam of storytelling. People bolt down the sweet jam of storytelling and don’t even notice the understate of the powder (whatever message the writer is communicating). (151)

When we read nonfiction, we read with (151) our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to leave us defenseless. (152)


Adolf Hitler practicing theatrical poses for use in speaking performances. Hitler once called himself “the greatest actor in Europe.” Frederic Spotts agrees, arguing that Hitler’s mastery of public theater helped him mesmerize and mobilize the German people. After watching the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1935) fifteen times, the singer David Bowie said, “Hitler was one of the first great rock stars. He was no politician. He was a great media artist. How he worked his audience! He made women all hot and sweaty and guys wished they were the ones who were up there. The world will never see anything like that again. He made an entire country a stage show.”

The Nazis, deeply inspired by Wagner’s musical stories, understood that ink people are mong the most powerful and dangerous people in the world. And so they committed a holocaust of undesirable ink people so there would be fewer barriers to a holocaust of real people. (155)

| Among the books burned that night in 1933 was the play Almansor (1821) by the German Jewish writer Heinrich Heine. The play contains this famous and prophetic line: “Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.” (155)

8. Life Stories

People remember what they can live with more often than how they lived.-  David Carr, The Night of the Gun

Some critics argue that most memoirs, not just the brazenly fraudulent ones, should be shelved in the fiction section of bookstores. Memoirists don’t tell true stories; they tell “truths” ones. Like a film that dramatizes historical events, all memoirs should come with a standard disclaimer: “This book is based on a true story.” 9161)

A life story is a “personal myth” about who we are deep down–where we come from, how we got this way, and what it all means. Our life stories are who we are. They are our identity. A life story is not, however, an objective account. A life story is a carefully shaped narrative that is replete with strategic forgetting and skillfully spun meanings. (161)

As we will see, a life story is an intensely useful fiction. (162)


In 1977, the psychologists Roger Brown and James Kulik coined the term “flashbulb memories” to describe shot-perfect recollections of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. (162)

In short, flashbulb memory research shows that some of the most confident memories in our heads are sheer invention. (165)

This study was among the first of many to show how shockingly vulnerable the memory system is to contamination by suggestion. (167)

This research is profoundly unsettling. If we can’t trust our memories about the big things in life–9/11, sexual abuse, being hospitalized after a dog attack–how can we trust it about the small things? How can we believe that anything in our lives was as we remember it, especially since we are every bit as confident in our false memories–our “retroactive hallucinations”–as we are in our true ones? (168)

Put differently, the past, like the future, does not really exist. They are both fantasies carted in our minds. The future is a probabilistic simulation we run in our heads in order to help shape the world we want to live in. The past, unlike the future, has actually happened. But the past, as represented in our minds, is a mental simulation, too. Our memories are not precise records of what actually happened. They are reconstructions of what happened, and many of the details–small and large–are unreliable. (169)

| Memory isn’t an outright fiction; it is merely a fictionalization. (169)


Put differently, we misremember the past in a way that allows us to maintain protagonist status in the stories of our own lives. (170)

[via: So, what does it mean if we tell stories in which we are the culpable antagonist; guilty?]

Studies show that when ordinary people do something wrong–break a promise, commit a murder–they usually fold it into a narrative that denies or at least diminishes their guilt. This self-exculpatory tendency is so powerful in human life that Steven Pinker calls it the “Great Hypocrisy.” (170)

After raping and murdering thirty-three boys in the 1970s, John Wayne Gacy said, “I see myself more as a victim than as a perpetrator…I was cheated out of my childhood.” He complained that the news media were treating him like a bad guy–like “an asshole and a scapegoat.”

This need to see ourselves as the striving heroes of our own epics warps our sense of self. (171)

But on some level, we want to be more like the heroes of fiction, and this means deluding ourselves about who we are and how we got this way. (171)

Many people can’t understand why they seem to look less attractive in photographs than they do in mirrors. This may be partly about photographic distortion, but it is mainly about the way we unconsciously pose in mirrors… We arrange ourselves in the mirror until it tells a flattering lie. This is a good metaphor for what we are doing all the time: building a self-image that improves on the real deal. (172)

Psychologists call this “the Lake Woebegone effect”: we think we are above average when it comes to just about any positive quality–even immunity to the Lake Woebegone effect. (173)

According to Shelley Taylor, a healthy mind tells itself flattering lies. (174)

According to the psychologist Michele Crossley, depression frequently stems form an “incoherent story,” an “inadequate narrative account of oneself,” or “a life story gone awry.” Psychotherapy helps unhappy people set their life stories straight; it literally gives them a story they can live with. (175)

All of this research shows that we are the great masterworks of our own storytelling minds–figments of our own imaginations. We think of ourselves as very stable and real. But our memories constrain our self-creation less than we think, and they are constantly being distorted by our hopes and dreams. (175) Until the day we die, we are living the story of our lives. And, like a novel in the process, our life stories are always changing and evolving, being edited, rewritten, and embellished by an unreliable narrator. We are, in large part, our personal stories. And those stories are more truths than true. (176)

9. The Future of Story

…the end of the novel would be a very sad thing. But, as David Shields himself stresses, it would not be the end of story. The novel is not an eternal literary form. While the novel has ancient precursors, it rose as a dominating force only in the eighteenth century. We were creatures of story before we had novels, and we will be creatures of story if sawed-off attention spans or technological advances ever render the novel obsolete. Story evolves. Like a biological organism, it continuously adapts itself to the demands of its environment. (180)

Ours is not the age when poetry died; it is the age when (180) poetry triumphed in the form of song. (181)


Achieving verisimilitude is a large part of the craft of fiction. (185)

Futurology is a fool’s game, but I think the worry that story is being squeezed out of human life is exactly the wrong one. The future will see an intensification, even a perfection, of what draws us to fiction in the first place. The gravitational pull of story is going to increase manyfold. (186)



MMORPG [massively multiplayer online role-playing game]


Commentators frequently blame MMORPGs for an increasing sense of isolation in modern life. But virtual worlds are less a case of that isolation than a response to it. Virtual worlds give back what has been scooped out of modern life. (195)

There’s an analogy to be made between our craving for story and our craving for food. A tendency to overeat served our ancestors well when food shortages were a predictable part of life. But now that we modern desk jockeys are awash in cheap grease and corn syrup, overeating is more likely to fatten us up and kill us young. Likewise, it could be that an intense greed for story was healthy for our ancestors but has some harmful consequences in a world where books, MP3 players, TVs, and iPhones make story omnipresent–and where we have, in romance novels and television shows such as Jersey Shore, something like the story equivalent of deep-friend Twinkies. I think the literary scholar Brian Boyd is right to wonder if overcon-(197)suming in a world awash with junk story could lead to something like a “mental diabetes epidemic.” (198)

| Similarly, as digital technology evolves, our stories–ubiquitous, immersive, interactive–may become dangerously attractive. 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. (198)

| Maybe we can avoid this fate. Maybe, like disciplined dieters, we can make nutritious choices and avoid gorging on story. In that spirit, here are some modest suggestions based on the research in this book.

Read fiction and watch it. It will make you more empathetic and better able to navigate life’s dilemmas.

Don’t let moralists tell you that fiction degrades society’s moral fabric. On the contrary, even the pulpiest fare usually pulls us together around common values.

Remember that we are, by nature, suckers for story. When emotionally absorbed in character and plot, we are easy to mold and manipulate.

Revel in the power of stories to change the world (think Uncle Tom’s Cabin), but guard against it, too (think The Birth of a Nation).

Soccer practice and violin lessons are nice, but don’t schedule away your child’s time in Neverland–it is a vital part of healthy development.

Allow yourself to daydream. Daydreams are our own little stories: they help us learn from the past and plan for the future.

Recognize when your inner storyteller is locked in overdrive: be skeptical of conspiracy theories, your own blog posts, and self-exculpatory accounts of spats with spouses and coworkers. (198)

If you are a doubter, try to be more tolerant of the myths–national and religious–that help tie culture together. Or at the very least, try to be less celebratory of their demise.

The next time a critic says that the novel is dying from lack of novelty, just yawn. People don’t go to story land because they want something startlingly new; they go because they want the old comforts of the universal story grammar.

Don’t despair for story’s future or turn curmudgeonly over the rise of video games or reality TV. The way we experience story will evolve, but as storytelling animals, we will no more give it up than start walking on all fours.

| Rejoice in the fantastic improbability of the twisting evolutionary path that made us creatures of story–that gave us all the gaudy, joyful dynamism of the stories we tell. And realize, most importantly, that understanding the power of storytelling–where it comes from and why it matters–can never diminish your experience of it. Go get lost in a novel. You’ll see. (199)


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