Book by: Johnathan Gottschall
Review by: Faith Enemark 
Academic Advising 
California College of the Arts 

In The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, Jonathan Gottschall takes the reader on a journey through the history of story and its necessity to our human interactions, our growth, and our very being. Though not directly related to the field of advising or education, the book provides insight into the ways in which our lives are shaped by the stories we hear, see, and the stories embrace as truth. All of us who serve in the advising profession know from experience how remarkable and how varied the stories of ours students are, as they are told to us in our every day experience. Having a greater appreciation of this can only serve to help advisors in understanding students and their unique “stories”.

Gottschall’s style is engaging, as he opens chapters with small suspenseful tastes of stories and uses anecdotes that reference both popular culture and historical events. These techniques remind the reader of the appeal and importance of story. Gottschall begins his exploration of storytelling from an evolutionary perspective, explaining how story has served to help humans as a form of social glue, a way of building “mental muscles,” and a method for instructing others, outlining all the ways in which story permeates our lives. Humans begin utilizing story as children, as we create worlds of make-believe. As adults, we daydream about ways of dealing with conflict or fantasize about a life without conflict. We spend our time watching or reading the stories of others. We update our friends, either in person or via social media outlets, with narratives about our lives. And when we sleep, we follow the storylines of our dreams (Gottshcall, 2012, p. 6-12).

Gottschall argues that the majority of stories focus on conflict and trouble. He discusses story as problem simulation, as it allows us to practice responses to trouble. Research on mirror neurons shows that people respond to stories as though they were actually experiencing the events. Stories, whether in our dreams or in texts, allow us to live vicariously through a situation, without actually confronting any danger. We can practice solutions or witness possible reactions. Stories can reinforce ethical behavior and common values (Gottshcall, 2012, p. 56-62).

Perhaps most relevant to the field of higher education, are Gottschall’s views regarding the creation of personal myths. Gottschall references research that has shown that we frequently misremember our own past experiences. He proposes that we frame ourselves as the heroes in our own lives; that we remember our experiences in the ways necessary for us to remain the protagonist. In depression, he notes, self-assessment is no longer positive and one of the key aspects of therapeutic intervention is creating a positive narrative for an individual.

This understanding of self-image can be useful in working with students. In advising, we speak with both the students who see themselves as heroes and the students who do not. We often have the opportunity to hear the false stories that students are telling themselves, whether it is that all their instructors are out to get them or that they are incapable of doing well. In the advising role, we have a unique opportunity of contributing to and reframing these stories for the good of our students.

Gottschall concludes with a discussion of the evolution of story, describing the ways in which story has expanded from oral and written narratives to video games, movies, and virtual worlds. This, too, provides an interesting topic for advisors, as we attempt to reach our students through new technologies and maintain their engagement, in an ever changing technological culture.

Gottschall brings together stories, science, and popular culture to create a cohesive and interesting read about the power of narrative. Though not focused on higher education, The Storytelling Animal offers an engaging perspective on how story shapes us, which is thought-provoking as we work with students who are often in the midst of shaping their own narratives about who they are, who they want to be, and who we can help them to become.  

The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. (2012). Book by Jonathan Gottschall, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Review by Faith Enemark 272 pp., $14.95, (Paperback). ISBN #978-0-544-00243-0

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