Humanity has always been absorbed in stories, beginning millenniums ago with the oral tradition (around campfires and cave rocks) and continuing today in books, films, television narratives and more. In "The Storytelling Animal" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 248 pages, $24), scholar Jonathan Gottschall explains the science behind our love of stories, using human evolution and neuroscience to show how stories have become the pre-eminent method for sharing experience and teaching us how to live. "Through stories," explains Gottschall, "we learn about human culture and psychology, without the potentially staggering costs of having to gain this experience firsthand."
Moreover, Gottschall connects our human need for stories with emerging scientific research about the way children play (kids at play are driven by specific narratives), our dreams (where we see stories about the themes that haunt and motivate us), personal memories (highly structured narratives, sometimes highly fictionalized), religion (stories that help us explain universal mysteries) and history (often stories we've agreed upon as true, despite contrary evidence).
Gottschall argues that stories offer us "virtual" rehearsals for living: "Fiction allows our brains to practice reacting to the kinds of challenges that are, and always were, most crucial to our success as a species." Stories help us understand problems, empathize with others and develop our own strategies for tackling life. Stories are, Gottschall shows, the place where the troubles of human existence get worked out. They are "rife with emotional and physical peril" and focus on how the protagonist overcomes obstacles that block the road to getting what he or she wants.
Equally important, stories communicate social values that the community lives by, thus promoting social cohesion. On the individual level, our memories become a kind of cumulative story: not surprisingly, we make ourselves the heroes of these stories, often forgetting inconvenient facts and supplying fictional ones to make us look better -- and we do it all unconsciously, in full belief that the stories we tell ourselves are mirrors of reality.
To create meaning out of the often random, often chaotic everyday details of life is among humanity's top priorities. We do this with story, which can be viewed as life given structure and minus the boring parts. The need to make meaning, and share human experience, is what makes our species so eternally connected to story, he concludes: "The storytelling mind is a factory that churns out true stories when it can, but will manufacture lies when it can't." Stories are the things that make us human, and this book's absorbing, accessible blend of science and story shows us exactly why.
Chuck Leddy is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Boston.