Saturday, September 01, 2012

The Storytelling Animal_review

Moral of the story: Fiction helps humans evolve


International Herald Tribune, 08-10-2012

 We love a good story. Narrative is stitched intrinsically into the fabric of human psychology. But why? Is it all just fun and games, or does storytelling serve a biological function? These questions animate The Storytelling Animal, a jaunty, insightful new book by Jonathan Gottschall, draws from disparate corners of history and science to celebrate our compulsion to storify everything around us.
There are several surprises about stories. The first is that we spend a great deal of time in fictional words, wheteher in daydreams, novels, confabulations or life narratives. When all is tallied, the decades we spend in the realm of fantasyoutstrip the time we spend in the real world. As Mr. Gottschall puts it, "Neverland is our evolutionary niche, our special habitat."
A second surprise: The dominat themes of stories aren't what we might assumethem to be. Consider the plotlines found in children's playtime, daydreams and novels.The narratives can't be explained away as escapism to a more blissful reality. If that were the purpose, they would contain more pleasure. Instead, they are horrorscapes. They bubble with conflict and struggle. The plots are missing all the real´life boring bits, and what remains is an unrealistically dense collection of trouble. Trouble, Mr. Gottschall argues, is the universal grammar of stories...
What do these observations reveal about the function of story? First, they give credence to the supposition that a story's job is to simulate potential situations. Neuroscience has long recognized that emulation of the future is one of the main businessses intelligent brains invest in. By learning the rules of the world and simulating outcomes in the service of decision-making, brains can play out events without the risk and expense of attempting them physically. Clever animals don't want to engage in the expensive and potentially fatal game of physically testing every action to discover its consequences. That's what story is good for.
But storytelling may run even deeper than that. Remember, in Star Wars, when Luke Skywalker precisely aims his proton torpedoes into the vent shaft of the Death Star? Of course you do. It's memorable because it's the climax of a grand story about good triumphing over evil. More important, Luke's scene provides a good analogy: It's not easy to infect the brain with an idea; it can be accomplished only by hitting the small exposed hole in the system. For the brain, that hole is story-shaped. As anyone who teaches realizes, most information bounces off with little impression and no recollection. Good professors and statesmen know the indispensable potency of story.
This is not a new observation, but nowadays we have a better understanding of why it's true. Changing the brain requires the correct neurotransmitters, and those are especially in attendance when a person is curious, is predicting what will happen next and is emotionally engaged. Hence, successful religious texts are not written as nonfiction arguments or bulleted lists of claims. They are stories. Stories about burning bushes, whales, sons, lovers, betrayals and rivalries.
Story not only sticks, it mesmerizes...

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