The Storytelling Animal

by Jonathan Gottschall

I was rather excited to see this new book about “How Stories Make Us Human”. I was expecting an analysis of the role of storytelling in human mentation. Yes, there is indeed some of that, but mostly this book can be summarized as “Golly gee, stories are just so wonderful!” There’s too much gushing prose about “the wonderful power of storytelling”. Yeah, yeah, I know that – can we get back to discussing HOW and WHY that’s so?

On three key points, I think that Mr. Gottschall has blundered. The first and easiest of these is his prognosis for the future of story. He rightly notes that it will likely be interactive, but otherwise his analysis is shallow. He merely extrapolates from existing successful games, postulating that we need merely ramp them up somehow to turn them into interactive storytelling. In this, he is way off the mark: games like
Hard Rain and MMORPGs don’t have the critical elements of stories, because their verbs don’t address anything story-like. I suppose that Mr. Gottschall should be forgiven his lack of expertise in this matter. But then, if he doesn’t really get it, why’s he writing about it? Because he doesn’t know how much he doesn’t know.

On a more substantial point, I think that Mr. Gottschall fails to grasp the reason WHY story is so important for human mentation. He notes repeatedly that it IS important, but never truly grapples with the reasons for this fact. The easiest way to understand it is by analogy with a computer. Consider this representation of data in a block of memory:

This is the closest representation to what’s actually in the memory: just binary bits, 1’s and 0’s. However, we can choose, if we so desire, to interpret those binary numbers as decimal numbers, like so:

This is important: there’s nothing in the memory that requires that these numbers be perceived as decimal numbers; we choose to see them that way. It’s a matter of interpretation. But now we’re going to go even further: we’re going to interpret them as alphanumeric characters:

Where did these alphanumeric characters come from? They’re from the standard “ASCII table” of alphanumeric characters. “ASCII” means “American Standard Code for Information Interchange”. It is a table mapping characters to numbers; here is the full table. There’s nothing absolute, necessary, or intrinsic to this table; it’s just something that some people cooked up many years ago that is now the standard that everybody uses. 

But we needn’t stop there. These nine numbers can be viewed in still another way. We can treat them as colors for pixels on a screen. Each group of three bytes represents the Red, Green, and Blue color components of the pixel; the system is called “RGB” for those three colors. So we can now interpret the same bits in memory as colors:

In real display systems, there’s usually a fourth byte involved, usually representing opacity, but we don’t need to get into that additional complexity. The important idea here is that what’s REALLY inside the computer is just 1’s and 0’s; we can choose to interpret those 1’s and 0’s as decimal numbers, ASCII characters, colors, or any number of other things. It’s all a matter of how you choose to interpret the data.

Now we can return to Mr. Gottschall’s book. He fails to recognize that the human brain relies on story as one of its primary modes of interpretation. In other words, the brain can take any random set of stimuli and interpret those stimuli as a story. This has been demonstrated over and over; it’s a variation on the inkblot test. Just as the brain will interpret a meaningless inkblot as something with meaning, it can interpret a time-sequenced pattern of inputs as a story. A child can look at a cloud and interpret it as something recognizable, then turn to the next cloud, interpret it, and start assembling a story out of the pieces. There have been experiments in which people are shown a sequence of randomly selected images, and they assemble fascinating stories to interpret the sequence of images.

Just as your eyes can recognize familiar objects in inkblots, clouds, and other random sources, so too does your mind organize any sequence of stimuli into a story. This capacity, it turns out, is closely associated with the development of language in the brain.

This brings us to Mr. Gottschall’s third major mistake: his discussion of dreams. He presents the two most popular hypotheses: the “random activation theory” and another theory which Mr. Gottschall does not label but I will label as the “virtual simulator theory”. The former theory argues that, during sleep, the mind carries out housekeeping functions, cleaning up the clutter of experiences collected during the day. Mr. Gottschall really blows it here; he misrepresents the hypothesis. The part he doesn’t mention is that the brain must transform the experiences of the day, which are stored in short-term memory, into long-term memory. This process is quite complex for several reasons. First, we must exclude all those experiences that are not worthy of long-term storage – but the evaluation of that worthiness is itself a tricky process. Second, the experiences of the day must be digested into a form that comports with the existing format of long-term memory. Finally, conflicts between the new experiences and the existing long-term memory must be resolved – a process that can extend over months.

Obviously, all this mentation requires the undivided attention of the brain for considerable periods of time, which is why it is handled only during sleep. You don’t think that we sleep to rest our muscles, do you? No, sleep has been shown to be necessary for mental health. This applies to all creatures: the larger the role learning plays in a creature’s life, the more time it spends sleeping. Yes, dogs and cats dream. Experiments have shown that people are unable to form long-term memories if they are awakened every time they start to dream. And extended sleep deprivation (a week or two) leads to a mental collapse.

All the mentation of dreaming extends through most if not all of the brain (that’s why we need the reticular formation to prevent our motor circuits from actually activating our muscles – otherwise we’d sleepwalk, punch at the air, eat the pillow, and so on). However, our conscious mind spans only a fraction of the total brain, so it can’t comprehend what’s going on. It therefore interprets the apparently random collection of stimuli as a story – which is what we call a dream. The dream is not totally arbitrary: some components of the mentation are closer to the surface and can therefore be interpreted more accurately, which is why we get recurring themes in dreams.

Mr. Gottschall prefers instead the hypothesis that dreaming is a kind of simulation process in which we play-act different scenarios in our minds. This is obviously hokum: if the purpose of the dreams were educational, why do we forget them almost immediately after waking up?