The Science Behind Telling Stories

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

In his ongoing efforts to bring more science to the humanities, Jonathan Gottschall looks at the human "instinct" for narrative. Gottschall teaches English at Washington & Jefferson College and is the author of the new book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human


Jonathan Gottschall

Comments [15]

Gerald from Urayasu, Japan

I'd be interested in learning more about the "science of storytelling" in relation to false memory syndrome. In some cases - especially where the memories become really lurid, weird and fantastical (Dads burying dead siblings in the forest; entire families taking part in gross rituals of rape and incest) - it has seemed to me that the people remembering (and the psychologists working with them) were entering "storytelling" or fiction-creating parts of the brain that they were unable to understand or control. They were creating images and fiction but were being told to believe it as fact.

And regarding Mike Daisy, it's specious to analogize him to everyone who embellishes the truth of their stories. Daisy started riding the media wave big time, appearing as an expert on China labor relations, telling his same stories - not only in the theater but in media interviews. This is sociopathology - not simple storytelling.

Apr. 12 2012 04:34 AM
Eugenia Renskoff from Brooklyn, NY

Hi, I love stories. The good ones make our lives better. They teach us something about ourselves. It is often like looking into a mirror. Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorite books.It is basically a Cinderella story but a really good and extremely well written Cinderella story. Eugenia Renskoff

Apr. 10 2012 02:05 PM
Jon from Manhattan

Again with the Mike Daisey issue. It is the fault of the viewer who takes literally the work of an artist as scientific truth. Nevertheless, Daisey's wider veracity about globalism and its implementation in China still rings true. Picasso's quote is appropriate here, "Art is a lie that makes us realize truth."

Apr. 10 2012 11:50 AM
John A.

"The Mike Daisey sort of scandal"
Right. I did not read this as fully a scandal either.

Apr. 10 2012 11:49 AM
Jane from Brooklyn

how then the Disneyfied children stories influence the emotional development of children in US? (see Little Mermaid etc). that is why Harry Potter and Hunger Games are so popular. they don't smooth the edges

Apr. 10 2012 11:48 AM
fuva from Harlemworld

andy from manhattan: Right on.

Apr. 10 2012 11:47 AM
jwb from nyc

Your guest just touched upon a concern I have had regarding those with autism spectrum disorders in which the "mirror neurons"may be dysfunctional thereby making it difficult for them to "put themselves in another's shoes". My own son who has mild Asperger's had a great love of making up stories as a small child but they were heavily scripted and involved mostly inanimate objects or cartoon characters, and these days he prefers computer games which have very clear parameters and more or less controllable outcomes. I know he needs to learn to navigate in the "soft" and unpredictable human interaction world, and I encourage his reading fiction (he prefers nonfiction). Very interesting conversation.

Apr. 10 2012 11:47 AM
andy from manhattan

i wonder about the factual elements of this research. it seems another quest to prove human exceptionalism. i don't buy it. just because we cannot understand the communication of other creatures does not mean we are alone in our abilities to lie.

even chimps who are taught sign language will tell lies on occasion. is that because they were taught by humans?

we want so badly to be on top, that we assume our supremacy.

Apr. 10 2012 11:44 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

I agree with your guest, that those who tend not to read fiction very much have fewer social skills. I certainly perfectly fit that bill. I have no "social skills" because I prefer more realism to fiction in my choice of entertainment media. I have no interest in modern art nor in written works of fiction, and even prefer movies and video games that evince more realism than fantasy.

However, prevaricators and others good at making up stories will tend be more fascinating than say engineers or scientists, unless they popular story-telling types. People do like to hear a good yarn. It's all entertainment, and not to be taken too seriously in any case.

Apr. 10 2012 11:43 AM
David C

This guest is presenting old news, re: an evolutionary advantage to being storytellers.

Also, it's definitely not true that humanities have not used science. The scientific method was used in the 18th century by Sir William Jones to make a scientific link between Latin, Greek and Sanskrit. The scientific method is also routinely used to explore the history of ancient works of literature, for example, the Odyssey and the Bible among many, many others.

This guy is boring!!!

Apr. 10 2012 11:42 AM

Maybe I should expand a bit - Buddhism holds that our daily experience is actually the result of internal story telling.

Apr. 10 2012 11:42 AM
fuva from Harlemworld

...Or is it that people that read/watch non-fiction seem less social because there's no one to have intelligent discourse with, because they're all watching NCIS?

Apr. 10 2012 11:40 AM

As an aspiring children's author, I'd be interested to hear his understanding of why the predominant storytelling formula is so ubiquitous.
(We meet the Protagonist. The Protagonist has a problem or pursuit. In the quest to resolve it, the problem worsens or new problems emerge, including an Antagonist. The Antagonist has a fatal flaw, the Protagonist takes advantage of it, achieves the goal, and the ending is happy.)

Apr. 10 2012 11:39 AM

Sounds like some of the basic understandings of Buddhism..

Apr. 10 2012 11:37 AM

and what about the greatest fiction GOD

Apr. 10 2012 11:36 AM

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