The Science of Storytelling: A Conversation with Jonathan Gottschall

BY Mike Melia  June 14, 2012 at 8:15 AM EDT

Now this is a story all about how… we tell stories. Whether it’s the Fresh Prince’s fights on a Philadelphia playground or the struggles of Odysseus at sea, stories have always captivated our attention, and narrative plays a central role in what makes us human. In his new book, “The Storytelling Animal,” Jonathan Gottschall explores the art of telling tales and the science behind what’s at work in our minds when we hear things like, “Once upon a time.”

Jonathan Gottschall, Author of 'The Storytelling Animal'

For children, telling stories is as natural and as reflexive as breathing, Gottschall writes, but adds that “nothing so central to the human condition is so incompletely understood.” And that misunderstanding stems from a divide between the sciences and the humanities, which C.P Snow famously called the “Two Cultures” in his book by that name.

“These questions are left to languish in these borderlands between the sciences and the humanities, and the book is an attempt to call attention to that and hopefully get more people involved in trying to solve this really big mystery about who we are and how we got this way,” Gottschall said.

We recently talked to Gottschall about his book. You can listen to the audio at the top of this post. Transcript is after the jump.

MIKE MELIA: Once upon a time, actually just this spring, Jonathan Gottschall wrote a book about stories, “The Storytelling Animal.” It tells the tale of how narrative is central, maybe the most important part of our lives. Jonathan joins me now by phone from Washington, Pa. Thank you for taking the time to talk with us.

JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL: I’m glad to be here. Thank you.

MIKE MELIA: You write in the book, “Neverland is our nature, we are the storytelling animal.” What does that mean? Why is story so central to our lives?

JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL: If you start adding up the hours that you spend in imaginary worlds you get to a pretty astonishing figure. We spend four hours a day watching TV, our children make believe, we spend hours and hours, actually about eight hours per day, lost in day dreams. We dream in stories. When you add all this time up, for me it was a startling conclusion, that humans aren’t really Earthlings. We’re more like citizens of this weird omni-dimensional world called Neverland. We spend most our lives wandering inside imaginary worlds.

MIKE MELIA: This book is a mix of art and science: the art of storytelling and the chemistry and biology of why it works.

JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL: It’s a bridger. The famous distinction or division between the two cultures of the science and the humanities. C.P. Snow, who came up with this idea of the two cultures, said that division was a sheer loss to us all, the way that the science and the humanities aren’t really communicating. We have all these questions that live in the borderlands between the sciences and humanities that don’t get addressed. This book is an attempt to bridge those two communities, get them in conversation and address those questions that fall in that gap between the two cultures.

We have all these questions that live in the borderlands between the sciences and humanities that don’t get addressed. This book is an attempt to bridge those two communities, get them in conversation and address those questions that fall in that gap between the two cultures.
–Jonathan Gottschall

MIKE MELIA: You start at the beginning. In the chapter “The Witchery of Story,” you write, “Children the world over delight in stories and start shaping their own pretend worlds as toddlers. Story is so central to the lives of young children that it comes closer to finding their existence. What do little kids do? Mostly they do story.” This is natural for as right from the get go.

JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL: Yeah, I think natural is really the right word. If there’s a bias that the culture has, it is to see storytelling and other forms of art as provinces solely of culture and solely of the humanities. The book is in large part about challenging that bias, to argue that story is as natural to humans as opposable thumbs are, as bipedal posture, walking on two legs is. It’s part of human nature. It’s part of culture, too — stories are influenced by cultures, story influences culture, but that’s a one-sided way of looking at it. A story is very natural to us, and as that passage you just read suggests, some of the best evidence for it is little children. Little children come into the world and they learn to make up stories, to tell stories, to live inside stories, and then make believe by nature but not by nurture. We don’t have to bribe them to do it. It’s as natural and as reflexive for them as breathing.

MIKE MELIA: And it’s not just for kids or even during the day. You also write, “Every night of our sleeping lives, we wander through an alternative dimension of reality.” And you go on to say, “while the body lies dormant, the restless brain improvises original drama in the theaters of our mind.” And so you spend a good amount of time here in the chapter “Night Story” on sleep and dreaming and what we know about that and the stories we tell ourselves while we’re not awake.

JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL: Research in this is really fascinating. There is so much that I didn’t know and so much that surprised me. I never really, before I got into this book, paused to think about how strange it is that we tell these stories in our dreams. Dream researchers define a dream as — this is a quote — “a vivid sensory motor hallucination within a narrative context.” It’s a night story. It focuses on the protagonist, usually the dreamer, who has to overcome obstacles to achieve his or her desires. Some of the dimensions some of the aspects of dream stories are really neat too, because we all have this tendency, I think, to think of dreamland as a happy place or a nice place. We say things like, “if only dreams come true,” but thank goodness they don’t. Dreamland is a pretty scary place, a pretty nasty place, a place where we feel mostly afraid, scared, we feel rage, sorrow and tons and tons of anxiety. Dreamland is a pretty dark place.

MIKE MELIA: And it’s not just dreams. Memory is a form of storytelling that you explore in the book, too, and while it can be flawed, it also shapes the stories we tell ourselves about our ourselves.

JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL: Yeah, so we all have these little life stories, this sense of who we are and how we got this way and what our formative experiences were. That life story that we tell ourselves about ourselves is based crucially upon our memories about, you know, what happened to us in the past. The problem is that once you start delving into these memories, you find that they’re substantially fictionalized. Some of the most confident memories that are residing in our brain just didn’t happen the way we think they happened. There’s this kind of uncomfortable sense that we are sort of figments of our own imagination. It’s not completely made up, of course. I like think of it as like you go to a movie and it’s based on historical facts — they say, “This movie was based on a true story.” That’s a little disclaimer that should come with all of our lives’ stories, the story that we tell ourselves is based on a true story.

MIKE MELIA: And the future of storytelling in this age of Twitter and blogs and e-books… what does that tale look like?

JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL: Well, a lot of people look on the landscape of story and the future of story, and they see something very bleak. I see something quite hopeful. Video games in particular give me a lot of hope for a new frontier in storytelling, a frontier where all of the big decisions about what this genre is going to be like are still being made, all the conventions are still developing. But what a video game gives you is this: If you watch an ad for a video game, what you’ll notice pretty quickly is that most of them put you inside a movie trailer. These are movies in which you get to be the lead character. The video game inserts you into the story and you have a really interactive experience with the story. You don’t have to lay back passively and let the story happen to you. You are inside the story, influencing how it will end with your decision making.

MIKE MELIA: And we’re still in the midst of a sort of pick your own adventure book, right? You also write, “In short, nothing so essential to the human condition is so incompletely understood.”

JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL: Yeah, this is the problem of the two cultures. We have something really massively central to human life, a place where we spend most of our time on earth — story land — and no one thinks it’s their job to ask these questions. The scientists say, “Oh, that’s humanities’ territory; I’m going to stay out of there, because that’s not my area.” And the humanities people say, “Well, to really address these questions, I’d have to have a lot of scientific skills and credentials; this must not be my area.” These questions are left to languish in these borderlands between the sciences and the humanities, and the book is an attempt to call attention to that and hopefully get more people involved in trying to solve this really big mystery about who we are and how we got this way.

MIKE MELIA: Jonathan Gottschall, author of “The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human,” thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us.

JONATHAN GOTTSCHALL: It was fun, I appreciate it.

Editor’s note: This story was cross-posted on ArtBeat.

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