TheStorytelling Animal

A New York Time's Editor's Choice

A Los Angeles Times Book Prizes Finalist
Humans live in landscapes 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 difficult situations. storytelling has evolved, like other behaviors, to ensure our survival.

Drawing on the latest research in neuroscience, psychology, and evolutionary biology, Gottschall tells us what it means to be a storytelling animal. Did you know that the more absorbed you are in a story, the more it changes your behavior? That all children act out the same kinds of stories, whether they grow up in a slum or a suburb? That 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. The Storytelling Animal finally reveals how stories shape us.


The New York Times

Editor's Choice Selection

“A new book explains why humans like to spin yarns—and why we’re so likely to stretch the truth when we do”

The Atlantic

“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 explain why storytelling is a fundamental human instinct.”

E. O. Wilson

University Research Professor and Honorary Curator in Entomology, Harvard University

“Whatever the reason, we’ll keep spinning yarns, simply because we are hardwired to do so…”

The Oprah Magazine

“A lively pop-science overview of the reasons why we tell stories and why storytelling will endure. [Gottschall’s] snapshots of the worlds of psychology, sleep research and virtual reality are larded with sharp anecdotes and jargon-free summaries of current research… Gottschall brings a light tough to knotty psychological matters, and he’s a fine storyteller himself.”

Kirkus Reviews

“[An] insightful yet breezily accessible exploration of the power of storytelling and its ability to shape our lives…Much to his credit, Gottschall wears his erudition lightly, displaying a deep knowledge in a refreshingly jargon-free narrative that explores the role that storytelling has played across the centuries…Gottschall packs the book with anecdotes and entertaining examples from pop culture…”

The Boston Globe

“Gottschall views narrative in terms of evolutionary biology in this insightful consideration of all things story. Witty and admirably self-restrained in examining arguably overimaginative storytellers and interpreters from Freud to 9/11 “Truthers” to James Frey, Gottschall…[is] unconventional, entertaining, and instructive…The work complements such emergent popularizations of neuroscience as Jonah Lehrer’s equally anecdotal How We Decide.”

Library Journal

“The Storytelling Animal is informative, but also a lot of fun, as when Gottschall vividly describes the “Neverlands” his daughters create in their playtime. Anyone who has wondered why stories affect us the way they do will find a new appreciation of our collective desire to be spellbound in this fascinating book.”


“This is a work of popular philosophy and social theory written by an obviously brilliant undergraduate teacher. The gift for the example is everywhere. A punchy line appears on almost every page”

The San Francisco Chronicle

“Stories are the things that make us human, and this book's absorbing, accessible blend of science and story shows us exactly why.”

Minneapolis Star Tribune

“A fascinating and riveting account of why we all love a story.”

Michael Gazzaniga

UC Santa Barbara

“The Storytelling Animal is a delight to read. It’s boundlessly interesting, filled with great observations and clever insights about television, books, movies, videogames, dreams, children, madness, evolution, morality, love, and more. And it’s beautifully written—fittingly enough, Gottschall is himself a skilled storyteller”

Paul Bloom


“Jonathan Gottschall is a storytelling animal–and I mean that in the nicest sense. Like the magnificent storytellers past and present who furnish him here with examples and inspiration, he takes a timely and fascinating but possibly forbidding subject–the new brain science 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 numerous, exhilarating, mind-expanding”

Terry Castle

Stanford University

“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

“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