T h e

Jonat han Gottschal l
How St ori es
Make Us Human
“Enthralling.” Joxau Liuiii, author of Imagine
$24.00 / Higher in Canada




“Like the magnificent storytellers past and present
who furnish him here with examples and inspiration,
Jonathan Gottschall takes a timely and fascinating
but possibly forbidding subject — the new brain sci-
ence and what it can tell us about the human story-
making impulse — and makes of it an extraordinary
and absorbing intellectual narrative. The scrupulous
synthesis of art and science here is masterful; the real
world stakes high; the rewards for the reader numer-
ous, exhilarating, mind-expanding.”
— TERRY CASTLE, Walter A. Haas Professor
in the Humanities, Stanford University
English at Washington and Jefferson College
and is the author or editor of five books. His
work has been featured in the New York Times
Magazine, Nature, and Scientific American,
among others. Steven Pinker has called him
“a brilliant young scholar” whose writing is
“unfailingly clear, witty, and exciting.”
uxaxs ii vi i x iaxoscaiis
of make believe. We spin fantasies.
We devour novels, films, and plays.
Even sporting events and criminal trials unfold
as narratives. Yet the world of story has long
remained an undiscovered and unmapped
country. It’s easy to say that humans are “wired”
for story, but why?
In this delightful and original book,
Jonathan Gottschall offers the first unified
theory of storytelling. He argues that stories help
us navigate life’s complex social problems — just
as flight simulators prepare pilots for diffi cult
situations. Storytelling has evolved, like other
behaviors, to ensure our survival.
Drawing on the latest research in neuro-
science, psychology, and evolutionary biology,
Gottschall tells us what it means to be a story-
telling animal. Did you know that the more
absorbed you are in a story, the more it changes
your behavior? Tat all children act out the same
kinds of stories, whether they grow up in a slum
or a suburb? Tat people who read more fiction
are more empathetic?
Of course, our story instinct has a darker
side. It makes us vulnerable to conspiracy
theories, advertisements, and narratives about
ourselves that are more “truthy” than true.
National myths can also be terribly dangerous:
Hitler’s ambitions were partly fueled by a story.
But as Gottschall shows in this remarkable
book, stories can also change the world for the
better. Most successful stories are moral — they
teach us how to live, whether explicitly or
implicitly, and bind us together around
common values. We know we are master shapers
of story. e Storytelling Animal finally reveals
how stories shape us.
Jacket design by Martha Kennedy
Jacket art © Mary Evans Picture Library
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN 978-0-547-39140-3
“They say we spend multiple hours immersed in stories every day. Very
few of us pause to wonder why. Gottschall lays bare this quirk of our
species with deft touches, and he finds that our love of stories is its
own story, and one of the grandest tales out there — the story of what
it means to be human.”
— SAM KEAN, author of The Disappearing Spoon
“This is a quite wonderful book. It grips the reader with both stories
and stories about the telling of stories, then pulls it all together to ex-
plain why storytelling is a fundamental human instinct.”
— EDWARD O. WILSON, University Research Professor
and Honorary Curator in Entomology, Harvard University
“A fascinating and riveting account of why we all love a story.”
— MICHAEL GAZZANIGA, Professor of Psychology,
University of California, Santa Barbara, author of Who’s in Charge?
“The Storytelling Animal is a delight to read. It’s boundlessly interest-
ing, filled with great observations and clever insights about television,
books, movies, video games, dreams, children, madness, evolution,
morality, love, and more. And it’s beautifully written — fittingly enough,
Gottschall is himself a skilled storyteller.”
— PAUL BLOOM, author of How Pleasure Works
“Story is not the icing, it’s the cake! Gottschall eloquently tells you ‘how
come’ in his well-researched new book.”
— PETER GUBER, CEO, Mandalay Entertainment
and author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Tell to Win
“Stories are everywhere. Stories make us buy; they make us cry; they
help us pass the time, even when we’re asleep. In this enthralling
book, Jonathan Gottschall traces the enduring power of stories back
to the evolved habits of mind. He reveals the ways in which we are
trapped, for better or worse, in a world of narrative. If you are in the
storytelling business — and aren’t we all? — you must read this book.”
— JONAH LEHRER, author of How We Decide and Imagine







Gottshall_mechanical.indd 1 1/30/12 1:01 PM
houghton mi ffli n harcourt • boston • new york 
Jonathan G ottschall
Gottschall_F.indd iii 1/4/12 2:05 PM
Copyright © 2012 by Jonathan Gottschall
All rights reserved
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book,
write to Permissions, Houghton Mif in Harcourt Publishing Company,
215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Gottschall, Jonathan.
The storytelling animal: how stories make us human /
Jonathan Gottschall.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-547-39140-3
1. Storytelling. 2. Literature and science. I. Title.
GR72.3.G67 2012
808.5'43 — dc23
Book design by Brian Moore
Printed in the United States of America
doc 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Blizzard Entertainment
and The World of Warcraft
are registered trademarks of Blizzard Entertainment, Inc.
Gottschall_F.indd iv 1/3/12 3:06 PM
Preface xi
1. The Witchery of Story 1
2. The Riddle of Fiction 21
3. Hell Is Story-Friendly 45
4. Night Story 68
5. The Mind Is a Storyteller 87
6. The Moral of the Story 117
7. Ink People Change the World 139
8. Life Stories 156
9. The Future of Story 177
Acknowledgments 201
Notes 203
Bibliography 215
Credits 231
Index 233
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God made Man because He loves stories.
— Elie Wiesel, The Gates of the Forest
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Statisticians agree that if they could only catch some immor-
tal monkeys, lock them up in a room with a typewriter, and
get them to furiously thwack keys for a long, long time, the
monkeys would eventually fail out a perfect reproduction of
Hamlet — with every period and comma and “ ’sblood” in its
proper place. It is important that the monkeys be immortal:
statisticians admit that it will take a very long time.
Others are skeptical. In 2003, researchers from Plymouth
University in England arranged a pilot test of the so-called
infnite monkey theory — “pilot” because we still don’t have
the troops of deathless supermonkeys or the infnite time ho-
rizon required for a decisive test. But these researchers did
have an old computer, and they did have six Sulawesi crested
macaques. They put the machine in the monkeys’ cage and
closed the door.
The monkeys stared at the computer. They crowded it,
murmuring. They caressed it with their palms. They tried to
kill it with rocks. They squatted over the keyboard, tensed,
and voided their waste. They picked up the keyboard to see if
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xii P R E F A C E
it tasted good. It didn’t, so they hammered it on the ground
and screamed. They began poking keys, slowly at frst, then
faster. The researchers sat back in their chairs and waited.
A whole week went by, and then another, and still the lazy
monkeys had not written Hamlet, not even the frst scene.
But their collaboration had yielded some fve pages of text. So
the proud researchers folded the pages in a handsome leather
binding and posted a copyrighted facsimile of a book called
Notes Towards the Complete Works of Shakespeare on the Inter-
net. I quote a representative passage:
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P R E F A C E xiii
The experiment’s most notable discovery was that Su-
lawesi crested macaques greatly prefer the letter s to all other
letters in the alphabet, though the full implications of this dis-
covery are not yet known. The zoologist Amy Plowman, the
study’s lead investigator, concluded soberly, “The work was
interesting, but had little scientifc value, except to show that
‘the infnite monkey theory’ is fawed.”
In short, it seems that the great dream of every statisti-
cian — of one day reading a copy of Hamlet handed over by an
immortal supermonkey — is just a fantasy.
But perhaps the tribe of statisticians will be consoled by
the literary scholar Jiro Tanaka, who points out that although
Hamlet wasn’t technically written by a monkey, it was writ-
ten by a primate, a great ape to be specifc. Sometime in the
depths of prehistory, Tanaka writes, “a less than infnite as-
sortment of bipedal hominids split of from a not-quite inf-
nite group of chimp-like australopithecines, and then another
quite fnite band of less hairy primates split of from the frst
motley crew of biped. And in a very fnite amount of time,
[one of ] these primates did write Hamlet.”
And long before any of these primates thought of writing
Hamlet or Harlequins or Harry Potter stories — long before
these primates could envision writing at all — they thronged
around hearth fres trading wild lies about brave tricksters and
young lovers, selfess heroes and shrewd hunters, sad chiefs
and wise crones, the origin of the sun and the stars, the nature
of gods and spirits, and all the rest of it.
Tens of thousands of years ago, when the human mind was
young and our numbers were few, we were telling one another
stories. And now, tens of thousands of years later, when our
species teems across the globe, most of us still hew strongly
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xiv P R E F A C E
to myths about the origins of things, and we still thrill to an
astonishing multitude of fctions on pages, on stages, and on
screens — murder stories, sex stories, war stories, conspiracy
stories, true stories and false. We are, as a species, addicted to
story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all
night, telling itself stories.
This book is about the primate Homo fctus (fction man),

the great ape with the storytelling mind. You might not real-
ize it, but you are a creature of an imaginative realm called
Neverland. Neverland is your home, and before you die, you
will spend decades there. If you haven’t noticed this before,
don’t despair: story is for a human as water is for a fsh — all-
encompassing and not quite palpable. While your body is al-
ways fxed at a particular point in space-time, your mind is
always free to ramble in lands of make-believe. And it does.
Yet Neverland mostly remains an undiscovered and un-
mapped country. We do not know why we crave story. We
don’t know why Neverland exists in the frst place. And we
don’t know exactly how, or even if, our time in Neverland
shapes us as individuals and as cultures. In short, nothing
so central to the human condition is so incompletely under-
The idea for this book came to me with a song. I was driv-
ing down the highway on a brilliant fall day, cheerfully spin-
ning the FM dial. A country music song came on. My usual
response to this sort of catastrophe is to slap franticly at my
radio in an efort to make the noise stop. But there was some-
thing particularly heartfelt in the singer’s voice. So, instead
of turning the channel, I listened to a song about a young
man asking for his sweetheart’s hand in marriage. The girl’s
father makes the young man wait in the living room, where
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P R E F A C E xv
he stares at pictures of a little girl playing Cinderella, riding a
bike, and “running through the sprinkler with a big popsicle
grin / Dancing with her dad, looking up at him.” The young
man suddenly realizes that he is taking something precious
from the father: he is stealing Cinderella.
Before the song was over, I was crying so hard that I had
to pull of the road. Chuck Wicks’s “Stealing Cinderella” cap-
tures something universal in the sweet pain of being a father
to a daughter and knowing that you won’t always be the most
important man in her life.
I sat there for a long time feeling sad but also marveling at
how quickly Wicks’s small, musical story had melted me — a
grown man, and not a weeper — into sheer helplessness. How
odd it is, I thought, that a story can sneak up on us on a beau-
tiful autumn day, make us laugh or cry, make us amorous or
angry, make our skin shrink around our fesh, alter the way
we imagine ourselves and our worlds. How bizarre it is that
when we experience a story — whether in a book, a flm, or
a song — we allow ourselves to be invaded by the teller. The
story maker penetrates our skulls and seizes control of our
brains. Chuck Wicks was in my head — squatting there in the
dark, milking glands, kindling neurons.
This book uses insights from biology, psychology, and neu-
roscience to try to understand what happened to me on that
bright fall day. I’m aware that the very idea of bringing sci-
ence — with its sleek machines, its cold statistics, its unlovely
jargon — into Neverland makes many people nervous. Fic-
tions, fantasies, dreams — these are, to the humanistic imagi-
nation, a kind of sacred preserve. They are the last bastion of
magic. They are the one place where science cannot — should
not — penetrate, reducing ancient mysteries to electrochemi-
cal storms in the brain or the timeless warfare among selfsh
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xvi P R E F A C E
genes. The fear is that if you explain the power of Neverland,
you may end up explaining it away. As Wordsworth said, you
have to murder in order to dissect. But I disagree.
Consider the ending of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The
Road. McCarthy follows a man and his young son as they
walk across a dead world, a “scabland,” in search of what they
most need to survive: food and human community. I fnished
the novel fopped in a square of sunlight on my living room
carpet, the way I often read as a boy. I closed the book and
trembled for the man and the boy, and for my own short life,
and for my whole proud, dumb species.
At the end of The Road, the man is dead, but the boy
lives on with a small family of “good guys.” The family has
a little girl. There is a shard of hope. The boy may yet be a
new Adam, and the girl may yet be his Eve. But everything
is precarious. The whole ecosystem is dead, and it’s not clear
whether the people can survive long enough for it to recover.
The novel’s fnal paragraph whisks us away from the boy and
his new family, and McCarthy takes leave of us with a beauti-
fully ambiguous poem in prose.
Once there were brook trout in the streams in the moun-
tains. You could see them standing in the amber current where
the white edges of their fns wimpled softly in the fow. They
smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and tor-
sional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were
maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing
which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the
deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and
they hummed of mystery.
What does that mean? Is it a eulogy for a dead world that
will never burgeon again with life, or is it a map of the “world
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P R E F A C E xvii
in its becoming”? Might the boy still be alive, out in the living
woods with the good guys, fshing trout? Or is the boy gone,
slaughtered for meat? No science can answer these questions.
But science can help explain why stories like The Road
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 incog-
nita of Neverland. It’s about the way that stories — from TV
commercials to daydreams to the burlesque spectacle of pro-
fessional wrestling — saturate our lives. It’s about deep pat-
terns in the happy mayhem of children’s make-believe and
what they reveal about story’s prehistoric origins. It’s about
how fction subtly shapes our beliefs, behaviors, ethics — how
it powerfully modifes culture and history. It’s about the an-
cient riddle of the psychotically creative night stories we call
dreams. It’s about how a set of brain circuits — usually bril-
liant, sometimes bufoonish — force narrative structure on the
chaos of our lives. It’s also about fction’s uncertain present
and hopeful future. Above all, it’s about the deep mysterious-
ness of story. Why are humans addicted to Neverland? How
did we become the storytelling animal?
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