How Stories Make Us Human
by Jonathan Gottschall
If you are going to write about stories, you should probably be able to tell one. Otherwise, you’ve got a credibility problem. Thankfully, Gottschall can tell stories and doesn’t hesitate to give color to his theories using examples from his own life.
Not that the book is all about him. It’s all about us, and how we are creatures of story. Human minds are wired for story, and this makes it possible for us to be in turn wired by story. Exploring this idea doesn’t destroy the magic — how our brains operate and what we believe is more layered than a trick that loses it’s power when it’s explained, after all. Science isn’t the enemy of story.
Story is a broader concept than at first you might realize. From the thoughts spinning through your head the moment your alarm goes off, to nearly every second of television you watch, to many of the conversations you have, to the shows in your head when you are sleeping — these are all stories. Fiction is “Character + Predicament + Attempted Extrication” — there’s even and equation of sorts for stories. (Science is a story, too.)
Knowing something is “just” a story doesn’t change how the brain reacts to it, either: “the emotional brains processes it as real”. If you are thinking emotional brain doesn’t sound scientific, Gottschall is talking to neuroscientists about regions of the brain that show activity during a functional MRI.
Our mind working this way is “a crucial evolutionary adaption” — storytelling provides meaning and creates a coherence in our lives that we otherwise wouldn’t have. Think things are confusing now? Imagine for a moment that there’s no internal narrator in your head, no ability to sequence and relate events to others… doesn’t sound human, does it?
Not that the storytelling mind is perfect, it isn’t. Both in the ways that our minds in general aren’t perfect (we forget things) but in ways that make us susceptible to conspiracy theories. The drive to find meaning is so strong, we have a tendency to create it when it isn’t obvious, or isn’t there. It is in this way that conspiracy theories make sense: they are a “solution” to the problem of evil. Why do bad things happen? It is hard for our brain not to know the answer, and when it doesn’t know, it is prone to make one up or believe a “logical” story that gives us a meaningful answer, so strong is our desire for meaning. It also means that we can lose ourselves in and learn from novels: “Good fiction tells intensely truthful lies.”
Storytelling is then, evolutionarily speaking, a tradeoff worth making. We might believe things that aren’t really true, but on the other hand, stories let us relate our communal experiences over space and time. Our memories are flawed, and our sense of ourselves as protagonist in the drama of our lives further erodes our adherence to literal truth, but these tendencies can still serve a greater good. Memory (which is a story we tell ourselves about the past) has a purpose: “to allow us to live better lives.” That we have the ability to forget or to reframe events isn’t a flaw, it is by design — one that lets us keep telling the story of our lives in ways that lets us grow and change.
We do seem to have some kind of need for redemption stories, don’t we?
I highly recommend this book. If you ever wondered why stories have such power, reading this book is a good place to begin your exploration of the answer.