April 2012

The power of a story

By Jonathan Gottschall
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Cartoonist Jen Sorensen once drew a strip titled “How to get Americans to care about genocide,” which included “Darfur: The Movie, starring Russell Crowe as an aid worker.” She may be onto something: Jonathan Gottschall argues, among other things, that fiction triggers empathy more effectively than nonfiction, giving Crowe a leg up on Anderson Cooper. Surprisingly, that’s not always a bad thing.

Gottschall roots his theory in early childhood, where kids are constantly making up stories that weave through their playtimes. Virtually all of them hinge on problems, offering a ready-made “plot” for princesses or firemen to jump into. These stories give them a place to practice social and problem-solving skills in a low-risk environment. Adults do this in daydreams, and some researchers believe our sleeping dreams serve much the same function (we just tend to forget those parts because they look so much like daily life, unlike when we’re late to class . . . and arrive in our underwear).

Adult fiction may feature more sophisticated plots, but the stories we’re drawn to are still almost entirely problem-focused. Even the scripted worlds of so-called reality television are designed to promote screaming matches, tearful reconciliations and hot-tub hookups. Would you really tune in to a show where nobody drank, swore or ate anyone else’s peanut butter? Obstacles are key to story as we understand it.

Gottschall looks at anthropological and neurobiological evidence that stories are part of human survival and evolution. The great religious texts offer people stories that unite them in communities and promote a common moral good. Uncle Tom’s Cabin shifted popular sentiment about slavery and roused passions at home and abroad as the nation went to war. Of course, the same degree of attachment can lead to tragic consequences as well; many of history’s atrocities originated from religious beliefs taken to extremes. Story is a double-edged sword, but one we play with daily.

The Storytelling Animal is informative, but also a lot of fun, as when Gottschall vividly describes the “Neverlands” his daughters create in their playtime. Anyone who has wondered why stories affect us the way they do will find a new appreciation of our collective desire to be spellbound in this fascinating book.

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The Storytelling Animal

The Storytelling Animal

By Jonathan Gottschall
ISBN 9780547391403

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