Book Review: The Storytelling Animal

About the Book

This book reviews the roles and uses people make of “narratives”, both the positives of using stories to teach cultural morals and negatives of people being deluded by their own stories and nightmares. I became interested in this topic because a lot of our knowledge is organized around different “stories” in ways we don’t always take into account as educators. The author of the book, Jonathan Gottschall, is also notable for being an English instructor working with Darwinian theory.

From a personal perspective, I have to say I agree with the idea of a universal storytelling instinct. How else could Joseph Cambpell have discovered The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Like many instincts though, it can serve people well in the sense that stories help people bond over a shared experience (e.g. Downton Abbey, Star Wars, Gone With the Wind) and serve as an organizer of information. I personally can recite the wives of King Henry VIII because I have seen lots of Tudor movies. I can also tell you a little bit about the Declaration of Independence based on the musical 1776. On the other hand, stories can also present and crystalize misinformation like “We only use 10% of our brain” (not true). Educators often use stories instinctively in the form of anecdotes, but do we understand how narratives and learning work in a structured way?

ISBN and Chapter Info

Gottschall, Jonathan (1994, 2012) The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human New York: Mariner (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). <br /?
ISBN 10: 0544002342

Table of Contents

  1. Chapter 1: The Witchery of Story
  2. Chapter 2: The Riddle of Fiction
  3. Chapter 3: Hell is Story Friendly
  4. Chapter 4: Night Story
  5. Chapter 5: The Mind is a Story Teller
  6. Chapter 6: The Moral of the Story
  7. Chapter 7: Ink People Change the World
  8. Chapter 8: Life Stories
  9. Chapter 9: The Future of Story

The Universality of Story

Not surprisingly, Gottschall discusses the universality of stories in human cultures in multiple medias. Stories began as an oral genre, but in the modern world they can be found in books, radio, movies and TV. They can even be found in role playing games and competition reality TV (e.g. WWF wrestling and The Bachelor). As we all know, there are lots of people trying to make money around the world providing narrative content for people to consume.

Gottschall also mentions that children like to make their own stories and adults can also make their own in the the forms of original stories or fan fiction type genres. What’s the evolutionary purpose of story? Gottschall discusses several theories but one he mentions is a connection to the mechanism of imagination. People do use scenario building as a way to play more mundane activities like food gathering/hunting or actual social events. Both are aided by trying to create a mental model of what people or animals are likely to need and do.

The Dark Side of Story

Interestingly, Gottschall spends a lot of time talking about the dark side of stories. One theme that emerges is that a lot of stories are actually about bad things that happen. Even if a story has a happy ending, there is typically some sort of bad situation that needs to be resolved. Gottschall presents some studies of children creating stories, and those too involve lots of bad events like kidnapping, murder, assault and theft.

In a similar vein, Gottschall presents research that most dreams are usually nightmares. Gottschall metions a model that one functions of narrative is to allow individuals to model different “dilemmas” and then possibly find solutions (or not). One offshoot of this theory are science fiction stories that explore potentials for modern technological developments. Mary Shelly questioned how far science should go in saving a life in Frankenstein much like robot stories question how artificial intelligence would impact our life in the future.

Fiction and Conspiracy Theories

Another potential dark aspect of stories is that people also use stories to build conspiracy theories. Gottschall comments that every person considers him/herself to be the hero of their own story (even if no one else does). Normally the realities of life check our impulses to be too “heroic”, but a mental illness can often result in delusions of paranoia or grandeur where all the world is full of villains and only the hero knows the secret mission.

Similarly, people may build a story to connect inexplicable events in a “coherent” narrative. As Gottschall notes though, the resulting narrative can often be wildly inaccurate and can be politically dangerous. One interesting example was a conspiracy theory in West Africa that health care workers were actually creating Ebola (while many in the U.S. felt Ebola was a plot controlled by President Obama). In case you are wondering if the “educated” middle class is immune, consider the damage of the conspiracy theory that vaccines can cause autism. In late 2014, the drop in vaccination rates led to a measles outbreak in California. This was caused by one scientist’s hoax that a lot of people’s “intuition” felt was true.

As a final step, Gottschall notes that sharing a common story can bring people together in a common cause, but again he warns of the dangers of a common story becoming a negative force. A positive example might be people who believe in the values of the American democracy and may celebrate key moments like the signing of the Declaration of Independence. But the same story can also lead to prejudice against non-Americans (or not-yet-American immigrants). In the worst case scenario, Gottschall described how Hitler used a story with theatrical accompaniments to convince many Germans to follow his Nazi agenda. Scary stuff.

Fiction and Empathy

Returning to a more positive aspect, Gottschall notes that a benefit of reading others’ stories is that the reader can feel empathy for different people in situations they might not experience in real life. Some models suggest that stories can act as a social skills simulation zone. Etiquette lessons are often taught by showing what happens to heroes who follow the codes versus villains who break them. More importantly, a story can also show different points of view in a way that’s deeper than just presenting the information. Interestingly modern role playing games take that a step further by involving true social interaction within a fictional framework.

What’s an ID to Do?

Gottschall’s book is a good introductory narrative on narrative that raises a lot of interesting points. Ultimately though, I think it’s important to dig a little deeper into what this means for cognition and pedagogy. One aspect that I think Gottschall missed is how narrative is used to structure “data”, particularly historical data or scientific data.

As I mentioned earlier, I was initially intrigued by the notion of using narrative to help learners build meaning. I remember novelist Morgan Llewelyn commenting that she couldn’t understand why students found history boring because “it’s all sex and violence.” That is, instead of concentrating on memorizing dates, it is likely more important to focus on the story behind the dates. I also think that story can be a good introduction to a particular field of study…although it can’t end there. One skill set that many students must learn is how to use data to build a quasi-accurate narrative, but they also need to learn caution not to extrapolate too much from their limited data. This is very important for fields like archaeology or psychology.

I was also intrigued by the idea of linking story and empathy. I think one of the hardest learning objectives to teach are affective goals, but stories appear to be a way to open a window into the mind (and soul) of a student. In the past, educators have talked about using games and simulations for the same effect, but is this really a byproduct of re-enacting a narrative?

Finally, I do think Gottschall points about the dark side of story are very important for education. I think all educators can think of examples of how scientific facts become distorted by meme simplification (aren’t memes just a really short story?). Similarly, they can all think of inaccurate stories that lead to prejudice and incorrect beliefs. Understanding how and why these stories are built can help us build better narratives for our students.

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