At She Reads we’re fond of saying that Story is the shortest distance to the human heart and there may be no group of people more devoted to finding and discussing great stories than we are. With that in mind, we thought it would be fun to look at Story from two different perspectives this week: science and faith. First up is Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal. On Thursday we’ll hear from speaker, storyteller, and award-winning novelist Steven James.
The idea for The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human came to me with a song. I was driving down the highway on a brilliant fall day, cheerfully spinning the FM dial. A country music song came on. My usual response to this sort of catastrophe is to slap franticly at my radio in an effort to make the noise stop. But there was something particularly heartfelt in the singer’s voice. So, instead of turning the channel, I listened to a song about a young man asking for his sweetheart’s hand in marriage. The girl’s father makes the young man wait in the living room, where he stares at pictures of a little girl playing Cinderella, riding a bike, and “running through the sprinkler with a big popsicle grin / Dancing with her dad, looking up at him.” The young man suddenly realizes that he is taking something precious from the father: he is stealing Cinderella.
Before I knew it I was blind from tears, and veering off the road to mourn the day—still more than a decade off—when my own little girls would fly the nest. I sat there for a long time feeling sad, but also marveling at how quickly Chuck Wicks’s small, musical story (“Stealing Cinderella”) had melted me—a grown man, and not a weeper—into sheer helplessness. How odd it is, I thought, that a story can sneak up on us on a beautiful autumn day, make us laugh or cry, make us amorous or angry, make our skin shrink around our flesh, alter the way we imagine ourselves and our worlds. How bizarre it is that when we experience a story—whether in a book, a film, or a song—we allow ourselves to be invaded by the teller. The story maker penetrates our skulls and seizes control of our brains.
The Storytelling Animal uses insights from biology, psychology, and neuroscience to try to understand what happened to me on that bright fall day. It’s about the way that stories–from TV commercials to daydreams to the burlesque spectacle of professional wrestling—saturate our lives. It’s about deep patterns in the happy mayhem of children’s make-believe, and what they tell us about story’s prehistoric origins. It’s about how fiction subtly shapes our beliefs, behaviors, ethics—how it powerfully modifies culture and history. It’s about the ancient riddle of the psychotically creative night stories we call dreams. It’s about how a set of brain circuits–usually brilliant, sometimes buffoonish–force story structure on the chaos of our lives. It’s also about fiction’s uncertain present and hopeful future. Above all, it’s about the deep mysteriousness of story. Why are humans addicted to make believe? How did we become the storytelling animal?
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. Jonathan lives with his wife and two young daughters in Washington, Pennsylvania.