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How Stories Make Us Human

In his new book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, Jonathan Gottschall puts forth the argument that storytelling’s deceptions emerge from deeply human needs. The Atlantic’s Maura Kelly investigates:

When we tell stories about ourselves, they also serve another important (arguably higher) function: They help us to believe our lives are meaningful. “The storytelling mind”—the human mind, in other words—”is allergic to uncertainty, randomness, and coincidence,” Gottschall writes. It doesn’t like to believe life is accidental; it wants to believe everything happens for a reason. Stories allow us to impose order on the chaos.

And we all concoct stories, Gotschall notes—even those of us who have never commanded the attention of a room full of people while telling a wild tale. “[S]ocial psychologists point out that when we meet a friend, our conversation mostly consists of an exchange of gossipy stories,” he writes. “And every night, we reconvene with our loved ones … to share the small comedies and tragedies of our day.”

As bad as this sounds, therapy likely helps, in part, because it encourages us to become less truthful autobiographers.

That’s not to say we intentionally or consciously falsify our autobiographies. Telling stories—even to ourselves—is always a matter of playing telephone, as psychologist Nate Kornell noted in a recent Psychology Today piece about the now-infamous performer Mike Daisey (who fabricated parts of a supposedly true story about Apple’s questionable business practices in China). “The second time I tell a story, what I’m remembering is the first time I told the story,” Kornell writes. “And the 201st time, I’m really remembering the 200th time. Many of our memories are records of our own stories, not of events that actually took place.”

The more often we tell a narrative, in other words, the more it changes subtly with each telling—and because we tell ourselves the stories of our own lives over and over and over again, they can change a lot.

Looking forward to reading this book.

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