Monday, December 10, 2012

The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall

Subtitled “How Stories Make Us Human,” Gottschall's book explores the ways that narrative structures our thinking. He looks at pretending and dreaming as forms of storytelling and shows that real dreams, like stories, are full of trouble. He considers the various theories about what fiction is for and settles on the idea that it helps us become more skillful and flexible in coping with our complex society.

But our story-making capacity is not always helpful. Various experiments have shown that the human brain is driven to find patterns and causes and reasons and will make them up if all else fails. Unaware of subliminal cues, people will create elaborate explanations for their behavior or choice, and will believe they are telling the truth. You can try one experiment with how we turn everything into story by watching a video of two triangles and a circle moving around a square. When it is that easy to create the illusion of meaning, it's no wonder that conspiracy theories make such compelling stories.

Gottschall explains that people tell themselves a life story in which they are the lead character. “A psychotherapist can therefore be seen as a kind of script doctor who helps patients revise their life stories so that they can play the role of protagonists again – suffering and flawed protagonists, to be sure, but protagonists who are moving toward the light.” In fact, even those we think of as villains and psychopaths may be telling themselves stories in which they are heroes or victims.

On the whole, across cultures, humans prefer stories where justice prevails and most fiction is quite moral. We really don't want a slice of life, but rather a narrative that confirms our sense of order. And when a literary story resonates with our inner story, “ink people,” as Gottschall calls characters, can change the world, not always for the better.

The Storytelling Animal ends with speculation on where fiction is going as we develop new media. A convergence of gaming and narrative has produced World of Warcraft and moved us closer to Star Trek's holodeck and immersive, participatory storytelling. “The real threat isn't that story will fade out of human life in the future; it's that story will take it over completely,” he concludes. That's been a science fiction nightmare since The Machine Stops (see review).  More recently John Barnes has created a compelling picture of that possibility in his stories of Giraut Leones: A Million Open Doors, The Merchants of Souls, and The Armies of Memory

1 comment:

Lennis said...

This sounds fascinating. I will have to check it out. I've always wanted a holodeck of my very own...