While driving down the road one day, English professor-turned-evolutionary psychologist Jonathan Gottschall listened as a country song twanged onto the radio. Before he could turn the dial, the story in the song caught him off guard and left him stopped on the side of the road sobbing.
How a song—a country song at that—had managed to reduce him to tears left Gottschall marveling at the power of the ballad. He set out to answer the question of why we tell stories and why they have such immense control over us. Thus was born The Storytelling Animal (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012).
The mystery of human storytelling grows out of its dominating presence in our lives. From TV commercials to the personal myths we spin about our weekend adventures, every single aspect of our lives is tied inextricably to story. Gottschall admits it up front:
You might not realize it, but you are a creature of an imaginative realm called Neverland. Neverland is your home, and before you die, you will spend decades there. If you haven’t noticed before, don’t despair: story is for a human as water is for a fish—all-encompassing and not quite palpable.
Gottschall jumps in immediately by pointing out that we do, indeed, live like fish. In order to understand the prevalence of story, he highlights its bewitching power. A well-crafted narrative sinks its fingers into our imagination and yanks us along for a ride. Unless you’re really trying, it’s near-impossible to stop.
Like a spell, stories shape our mind’s eye and squeeze all sorts of emotion from our spongy innards. And, when our waking minds shut down for the night, our subconscious keeps going. We spend half our waking hours and all of our sleeping hours telling ourselves stories. We are, as Gottschall lays out, hopelessly enthralled by fiction.
We don’t just tell stories—we become them.
Not content to leave us with only the observation that we are, as a race, addicted to story, Gottschall wants to understand why. From an evolutionary scientist’s perspective, the fiction infestation in the human race makes little to no sense. Stories are frivolous. They take time away from other tasks far more important to survival—particularly in prehistoric culture where food gathering gobbled up all-important hours of the day.
Some evolutionary psychologists sit back and label storytelling a byproduct of human evolution. Fiction hits the brain like crack, and we kept it around as a convenient drug. But Gottschall’s not satisfied with the drug theory. Stories, he argues, are the original virtual reality training program.
As he works through chapter by chapter, Gottschall unpacks the theory that storytelling reshapes our brain. Through imaginative play, children overcome startling trouble—a baby that gets poisoned or monsters that invade the preschool classroom.
As adults, we consume fiction to vicariously work through situations we’d never intentionally put ourselves into. We can become heroes with super-human compassion or strength, or villains with morals so low they could have a staring contest with a cockroach. We don’t have to pay the price—or spend the time in jail—to have the experiences that fiction spreads before us.
The brain science behind this phenomena is nothing short of chilling. Gottschall digs into several studies done wherein a subject’s brain was mapped while watching or hearing a story. Over and over again, the test demonstrated that a completely fictional situation impacted the brain in the exact same way as the actual events would have. That’s why we sleep with the lights on after reading a Stephen King novel.
There’s more to it than just a visceral response to scary movies though. Gottschall delves into the brain even farther, and surfaces the stunning reality that fiction functions like a flight simulator for our emotional lives.
Fiction is virtual reality with the very real effect of shaping our subconscious brains. As we engage with a protagonist and follow her failures and victories through a story, our brains change. The constant firing in our gray matter carves the emotional equivalent of muscle memory. In the end, we begin to look and think and feel the same way our favorite heroes or villains do.
At the most foundational, psychological, and emotional level, we literally become the stories we ingest.
In perhaps the most stunning proof of his point, Gottschall looks at the process whereby a few German characters went from novel to opera stage, and later galvanized a man named Adolf Hitler to execute against Europe war and terrible genocide.
Hope from The Storyteller
As he winds up The Storytelling Animal, Gottschall admits a kind of defeat—evolutionary psychology can only posit theories behind the human impulse to tell stories. But for the believer, Gottschall’s assembled research paints a more encouraging landscape—one where a creative God is the master storyteller who built little storytellers.
The applications of Gottschall’s research are immediately relevant to our understanding of the one governing story of the believer’s life—the Bible. We tell stories because God first did. And more than that, God chose to reveal himself to us not in cold proposition but in rolling narrative, because stories change people. In the story-of-stories, God-as-protagonist embarked upon a quest to redeem his storytelling creation. Gottschall even entitles a section of his book, “The Hero Dies So We Don’t Have To.” For a non-believing, evolutionary psychologist, he’s closer to the truth than he realizes.
Stories—especially the Story—matter. We must take care with the stories we tell ourselves, because we will become them. After all, we are all hopelessly addicted.
Cover image by Rachel Lees.