Humans are, and always have been, surrounded by stories. Not only when we read a novel or watch a film – also our (day)dreams and worries, jokes, gossip and even commercials involve a story. In his book The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall demonstrates what it means to be a storytelling animal. Drawing on the latest research in neuroscience, psychology, and evolutionary biology, he examines how stories shape our lives, discussing both the benefits and the downside.
1. How and why did we evolve as storytelling animals?
The short answer: No one knows for sure. Not yet. There’s a variety of theories in play, some of which may be complementary rather than mutually exclusive. In the book, I argue that there may be a mix of group-level and individual-level benefits. Fiction may act as a kind of flight simulator. In the same way that a flight simulator trains pilots to cope with the dilemmas of flight, fiction may help train us up on the big dilemmas of human life. And fiction may also serve group level benefits by drawing us together around common values, and enhancing our ability to connect with other people. But it’s also important to recognize that fiction may have no evolutionary function at all. It may be a side-effect of how the mind just happens to work—in the same way that the thumping soundof the heart has no purpose. The sound of the heart is just a side-effect of the heart’s need to circulate the blood.
2. Which story was – in your opinion – the most important story that shaped Western history?
Scripture. Flip through the holy books of the three great monotheisms— Judaism, Christianity, Islam—and you will be flipping through anthologies of stories: The Fall, the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham and Isaac, the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, the Archangel Gabriel seizing Muhammad by the throat and revealing that Allah created man from a clot of blood. And this is true of all other religions as well—from Zeus worship to Zoroastrianism. Religions are made out of stories that the believers treat as true.
As for secular stories, I’d probably choose Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Historians agree that Uncle Tom’s Cabin “exerted a momentous impact on American culture (and continues to do so),” inflaming the passions that brought on the most terrible war in American history. The novel wasn’t the only thing that drove the U.S. to its Civil War, but it played an important role. For more see, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jonathan-gottschall/9-stories-that-changed-the-world_b_1415472.html
3. Some say that playing story-centric video games is a way to escape real life, and therefore could be a negative development. What is your opinion about this?
I have mixed feelings about this. I think video games are an exciting new frontier in storytelling, and that they are likely to be the next century’s dominant form of story. We are living at the dawn of a new form of storytelling, where all the conventions are still being discovered. But there is a potential downside too. The booming popularity of story-centric video games like The World of Warcraft owes to the way that virtual worlds are becoming, in some ways, more appealing than real life (and these are still the early days; imagine what these games will be like a few decades from now). I see storytelling moving in the direction of Star Trek’s holodeck. On the holodeck, Star Trek’s characters enter into holonovels, where they get to actually be the heroine of a romance novel or the hero of a detective story. The holodeck is a computerized walk-in closet that allows the user to simulate anything in absolutely realistic detail. But I think Star Trek’s creators underplay the holodeck’s destructive potential. If you had a technology that allowed you to live any story you wanted, why would you ever come out? Why would you ever want to stop being god?
4. If you would conduct further research into the field of “storytelling” where would you focus on?
I’d like to see people from the arts and humanities combine forces with experimental scientists in order to test some of the big hypotheses about the evolutionary function of storytelling. Humanities people and science people rarely collaborate. But this is one of those questions that requires the humanities’ fine-grained knowledge about storytelling and science’s clever methods of hypothesis testing. To really answer the big questions about story, we need the two cultures of the sciences and the humanities to come together. Some of this is already happening. But we need more.
Jonathan Gottschall teaches English and writes books at the intersection of science and art. His work has been featured in outlets like The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times, Scientific American Mind, New Scientist, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nature, Science, BBC Radio and NPR. His blog, The Storytelling Animal, is featured at Psychology Today, and he also blogs at The Huffington Post.
Source: Jonathan Gottschall