Creating in Flow

The world of creativity—with a twist of rationality

Chimps Around the Campfire? Not Quite

Stories help us navigate the complexities of being human.

storytelling cave art
We make up stuff. That's what makes us fully human. We can't know when oral storytelling began, but it's easy to imagine the earliest speech-capable humans sharing tales.

We also can't be totally certain why it is that we invent stories or turn real events into tales that get told over and over, around the campfire, over the back fence, at the water cooler, or via pixels and bytes.

In The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, Jonathan Gottschall delves into the storytelling impulse, using the latest brain science. Perhaps we enjoy stories because of sexual selection (as Darwin thought), "maybe a way of getting sex by making gaudy, peacock-like displays of our skill, intelligence, and creativity—the quality of our minds."

Or telling tales might be a workout for our mental muscles, or a way of passing along information and instruction, or as a kind of social glue. Another view is that stories are for nothing. "The brain is not designed for story; there are glitches in its design that make it vulnerable to story," writes Gottschall.

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A college English teacher and the author or editor of five books, Gottschall's book is, in his own words, about "how a set of brain circuits—usually brilliant, sometimes buffoonish—force narrative structure on the chaos of our lives." One example he uses is Sherlock Holmes' fictional ability to reason backwards from the vaguest of clues. But our minds do that all the time, making up stories that "show what orderly series of causes led to particular effects." In this way,

the storytelling mind is a crucial evolutionary adaptation. It allows us to experience our lives as coherent, orderly, and meaningful.

Gottschall covers the gamut, from how writing changes the world, Nazi book-burning, reality shows on television, and split-brain studies, to how we learn to ride a bike without being able to explain exactly how we learned.

The Storytelling Animal is an elegantly written meta-story: a story about stories and how we shape them and they shape us.

  • See Gottschall's blog at PsychologyToday.  
  • See his web site for an interview, a book excerpt, links to some of his articles, and more. Also his book trailer.

[And, coming soon, here on Creating in Flow, another post related to brain science: 10 Brainy Tips for Hooking Your Reader.]

Copyright (c) 2012 by Susan K. Perry

Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and author. Her current focus is on the creative aspects of rationality and atheism.

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