Jonathan Gottschall


On his book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human

Cover Interview of April 16, 2012

The wide angle

My career has focused on bridging the gap between the estranged cultures of the humanities and sciences.  How can we use science to better understand fiction?  And what can scientists learn from fiction and the other arts?

But the idea for this book came to me not from research but from songs.

One day, I was at the gym, gerbilling away on the treadmill and channel surfing.  Suddenly Billie Ray Cyrus was staring at me with his highlighted bangs hooking down over his eyes.  For some reason I didn’t turn the channel.  Instead, I listened to Billie Ray sing a song about his daughter Miley, and the way she was growing up and moving on.  He reached the chorus—“Baby, get ready, get set…please, don’t go”—and the tears crowded into my eyes and spilled down.  I mopped my face with my towel, pretending it was sweat.  Gnawing my unsteady lips, I turned the channel.

Weeks later, I was driving down the highway and happened to hear the country music artist Chuck Wicks sing a similar song about a little girl growing up to leave her father behind.  For some reason I didn’t turn the channel. Before I knew it, I was blind from tears.  I had to veer off on the side of the road to get control of myself and to mourn the time—still well more than a decade off—when my own little girls would fly the nest.  I sat there on the side of the road feeling sheepish and wondering, “What just happened?”

Who hasn’t had a similar experience?  When we submit to fiction—whether in novels, songs, or films—we allow ourselves to be invaded by storytellers who seize control of us cognitively and emotionally.

I wanted to understand how stories—the fake struggles of fake people—could have such power over us.  The Storytelling Animal is about the way explorers from the sciences and humanities are using new tools, new ways of thinking, to open up the vast terra incognita of Storyland.  The book is about the way that stories—from TV commercials to daydreams to religious myths—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 narrative structure on the chaos of our lives.  It’s also about fiction’s uncertain present and hopeful future.

Above all, The Storytelling Animal is about the deep mysteriousness of story. Why are humans addicted to Storyland?  How did we become the storytelling animal?