1-Page Summary: The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall

Storytelling Animal by Jonathan GottschallI stopped reading at roughly the 40% mark, but what I did read was interesting and worth sharing. More than the book’s particulars, I stopped because I’m losing interest in contemporary, idea-narrative books of the sort popularized by Gladwell and Lewis. Recently I’ve been in an older, more esoteric book phase (eg, Emerson’s Self-Reliance, the Tao te Ching). Both Michael Hyatt and Nassim Taleb have influenced me here.

The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall [Kindle]

My main takeaways:

  1. We love stories
  2. Stories are play and practice. We’re entertained while we learn
  3. Stories are, at the heart, deeply moral
  4. We force stories even when they don’t exist. For example, Area 51
  5. The longest lasting, most powerful stories of human history? Religion
  6. Dreams are stories. We’re constantly dreaming, whether asleep or awake
  7. Other species dream, too, and like us the dreams are often scary and bizarre
  8. Reading fiction improves your social skills

Interesting highlights:

The musicologist and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin estimates that we hear about five hours of music per day. It sounds impossible, but Levitin is counting everything: elevator music, movie scores, commercial jingles…

Clever scientific studies involving beepers and diaries suggest that an average daydream is about fourteen seconds long and that we have about two thousand of them per day. In other words, we spend about half of our waking hours—one-third of our lives on earth—spinning fantasies.

But some say that science is a grand story (albeit with hypothesis testing) that emerges from our need to make sense of the world. The storylike character of science is most obvious when it deals with origins: of the universe, of life…

To children, though, the best thing in life is play: the exuberance of running and jumping and wrestling and all the danger and splendor of pretend worlds. Children play at story by instinct.

Or maybe story is a form of social glue that brings people together around common values. The novelist John Gardner expresses this idea nicely: “Real art creates myths a society can live by instead of die by.”

Paley’s book Boys and Girls is about the year she spent trying to get her pupils to behave in a more unisex way. And it is a chronicle of spectacular and amusing failure. None of Paley’s tricks or bribes or clever manipulations worked. For instance, she tried forcing the boys to play in the doll corner and the girls to play in the block corner. The boys proceeded to turn the doll corner into the cockpit of a starship, and the girls built a house out of blocks and resumed their domestic fantasies.

The most common view of play across species is that it helps youngsters rehearse for adult life. From this perspective, children at play are training their bodies and brains for the challenges of adulthood—they are building social and emotional intelligence.

But most of what is actually in fiction is deeply unpleasant: threat, death, despair, anxiety…

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.

In one study, they found that heavy fiction readers had better social skills—as measured by tests of social and empathic ability—than those who mainly read nonfiction. This was not, they discovered, because people who already had good social abilities naturally gravitated to fiction.

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. This night work may be one of the reasons we sleep in the first place: so the brain can finish all the housekeeping chores it can’t get to during the day.

And then you have atonia, the sleep paralysis that sets in during REM sleep. Why do we have it? It must be because, eons ago, our ancestors were harming themselves and others by acting out their dreams.

In short, Jouvet’s experiment showed not only that cats dream but also that they dream about very specific things. He pointed out the obvious: a cat “dreams of actions characteristic of its own species (lying in wait, attack, rage, fright, pursuit).”

It is important to stress that the same threat patterns have emerged not only in Western college students but in all populations that have been studied—Asians, Middle Easterners, isolated hunter-gatherer tribes, children, and adults. Around the world, the most common dream type is being chased or attacked. Other universal themes include falling from a great height, drowning, being lost or trapped, being naked in public, getting injured, getting sick or dying, and being caught in a natural or manmade disaster.

When you consider the plasticity of the brain—with as little as 10–12 minutes of motor practice a day on a specific task [say, piano playing] the motor cortex reshapes itself in a matter of a few weeks—the time spent in our dreams would surely shape how our brains develop, and influence our future behavioral predispositions.

In his memoir, Stephen King writes that he is skeptical of the “myth” associating substance abuse and literary creativity. Yet before getting sober, King drank a case of beer a day and wrote The Tommyknockers with cotton swabs stuffed up his nose to “stem the coke-induced bleeding.” At his intervention, King’s wife dumped his office trash can on the floor. The contents included “beercans, cigarette butts, cocaine in gram bottles and cocaine in plastic Baggies, coke spoons caked with snot and blood, Valium, Xanax, bottles of Robitussin cough syrup and NyQuil cold medicine, even bottles of mouthwash.”

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.

In a more recent study, psychologists asked a group of shoppers to choose among seven pairs of identically priced socks. After inspecting the socks and making their choices, the shoppers were asked to give reasons for their choices. Typically, shoppers explained their choices on the basis of subtle differences in color, texture, and quality of stitching. In fact, all seven pairs of socks were identical. There actually was a pattern in the shoppers’ preferences, but no one was able to detect it: they tended to choose socks on the right side of the array.

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.

Staunch believers in any of the three major monotheisms (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism) may take offense when I refer to their holy scriptures as stories. But many of those same believers would be quick to say that narratives about Zeus or Thor or Shiva—the Hindu god of destruction (pictured here)—are just stories.

Dawkins and Dennett argue that the mind is vulnerable to religion in the same way that a computer is vulnerable to viruses.

Second, religion coordinates behavior within the group, setting up rules and norms, punishments and rewards.

Third, religion provides a powerful incentive system that promotes group cooperation and suppresses selfishness.

We are only too happy to leer on as the bad guys of fiction torture, kill, and rape. But storytellers never ask us to approve. Morally repellent acts are a great staple of fiction, but so is the storyteller’s condemnation.

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.

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.