January 2013 SAI blog post
If you, like me, are tiptoeing your way into using digital technology and are alarmed by the prevalence of electronic screens in our midst, you may find a recent book some comfort.
Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human is a breezy summation of research and musings on why we love stories. An English professor at Washington and Jefferson College, Gottschall defines story broadly, including folktales, dreams, video games, and reality TV. He argues that we humans can’t live without story and that technology may change the form stories come in, but not their essence.
There’s a lot in this book that sounds familiar but I enjoyed Gottschall’s take on it. The paradox, the author says, is that stories in all forms are pleasurable and may temporarily free us from our troubles, but without some kind of conflict you don’t really have a story: “Beneath all the wild surface variety in all the stories that people tell—no matter where, no matter when—there is a common structure… Stories the world over are almost always about people (or personified animals) with problems.”
You knew that, right? But one conundrum that hasn’t been solved is whether stories serve an evolutionary purpose. Gottschall considers many theories, all still conjecture. What no one seems to doubt is that stories are part of what make us human, and that they are good for us.
Gottschall calls stories “flight simulators,” allowing us to safely train for big challenges in the social world. A fascinating example refers to research on “mirror neurons” that may help explain how newborns as young as 40 minutes old can imitate facial expressions and manual gestures. These neurons may be the basis of our ability to run powerful fictional simulations in our heads.
Gottschall also addresses the idea that story as we know it—mainly in the form of fiction—may disappear. He most surprised me with his suggestion that as digital technology evolves our attraction to story in ever more varied forms may morph into an addiction and take us over completely.
As a storyteller, my fear is that the bells and whistles of technology will mask the depth of what story can bring when we connect face to face through sharing and listening. Nourishing the human connection, allowing stories to nourish our hearts and minds, must never be allowed to fade away.
Maria believes that a story is a gift from heart to heart between teller and listener. A professional writer and editor, her love of fairy, folk, and wisdom tales has been lifelong, although studies leading to her bachelor’s degree in education from Boston College and years as a preschool teacher deepened her appreciation.
Maria’s life experiences have included work in low-income communities with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Utica, N.Y., and Providence, R. I., and participation in artist Judy Chicago’s needlework effort, The Birth Project.
She has told stories for the past 13 years at several venues, including Princeton’s Littlebrook School, the Princeton Montessori School, the Catholic Community of St. Charles Borromeo in Montgomery Township, and the New Jersey Storytelling Festival. She is a member of the Princeton Storytelling Circle.