Full PreFrontal

Ep. 171: Jonathan Gottschall - The Storytelling Brain

November 24, 2021 Sucheta Kamath Season 1 Episode 171
Full PreFrontal
Ep. 171: Jonathan Gottschall - The Storytelling Brain
Show Notes Transcript

What is as ubiquitous as air, water, and earth, but possibly more potent than all three? It’s a story. The human brain, while swept up in the forcefield of stories, is enthralled, molded and shaped by it, but is also readily deceived by the artful embellishments by powerful story-tellers, including an unreliable narrator within. Our daily consumption of narratives presented in the form of news clips, Tiktok clips, social media posts, novella, novels, plays, or films capture our imagination while shaping our beliefs, ideas, and even our ideology.  While stories may feel like all they do is carve a path through the landscapes of make-believe, they are far more powerful and integral to our ability to navigate life's complex social-interpersonal conflicts and unimagined or unimaginable human experiences.

On today's podcast, Distinguished Fellow in the English Department at Washington and Jefferson College and an author whose writing is at the intersection of science and art, and whose work has been covered in-depth by publications including Science, Nature, Scientific American, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Oprah Magazine, Jonathan Gottschall, discusses how and why storytelling has evolved as a means to ensuring our survival. Since Executive Function skills allow us to manage our life, our goals, and our actions while tuning out unsavory emotions and amping-up motivation or grit, it might be good to think about the role stories play in tackling mental rigidity and emotional inflexibility that challenges and chaos invoke.

About Jonathan Gottschall
Praised by Steven Pinker as “our deepest thinker about the powerful role of stories in our lives,” Jonathan Gottschall is a Distinguished Fellow in the English Department at Washington & Jefferson College. His writing at the intersection of science and art has been covered in-depth by The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, Scientific American, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Oprah Magazine, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Science, Nature, and on shows like Radiolab, Morning Edition, National Geographic’s StarTalk with Neal de Grasse Tyson, and The Joe Rogan Experience. Jonathan is the author or editor of eight books, including The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch (Penguin 2015), The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human (Houghton 2012), and The Story Paradox: How Our Love of Storytelling Builds Societies and Tears them Down (Basic Books, November 2021), which is a about the dark side of humanity’s storytelling instincts.  

Website: http://www.jonathangottschall.com


About Host, Sucheta Kamath
Sucheta Kamath, is an award-winning speech-language pathologist, a TEDx speaker, a celebrated community leader, and the founder and CEO of ExQ®. As an EdTech entrepreneur, Sucheta has designed ExQ's personalized digital learning curriculum/tool that empowers middle and high school students to develop self-awareness and strategic thinking skills through the mastery of Executive Function and social-emotional competence.

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Sucheta Kamath: Welcome, everyone, welcome to Full PreFrontal exposing the mysteries of executive function. A mature prefrontal cortex, at best can be described as a flight simulator that guides pilots on the runway of complex life circumstances, a difficult human conditions and changing internal as well as external climate while keeping an eye on the fleet of planes in the air. So you can see executive function skills allow us to manage our life, our goals, our actions, while helping us turn down our emotional responses, reactive emotional responses and fire up our motivation, and engage our grit during adverse and challenging times. So while stories may feel like all they do is carve a path to the landscape of make belief, they in fact, are far more powerful than that, you know, the art of storytelling is an integral part of our ability to navigate life's complex social challenges, interpersonal situations, and even problem solving. So we may not have thought much about our daily consumption of news clips, TikTok's, you know, novella, novels, films, or documentaries, but they play a very important role in shaping our beliefs, ideas, even ideologies. So today, we have a wonderful, wonderful guest, who I have personally found inspiration from and whose work has now you know, he has now a second book. So we're going to talk a little bit about that. But he, Dr. Jonathan Gottschall is going to share how and why storytelling has evolved as a means to ensure our human survival. And he himself has a very unique Knack as he shares. So let me tell you a little bit about him. Praised by Steven Pinker as our deepest thinker, about the powerful role of stories in our lives. Jonathan Gottschall is a distinguished fellow in the English department at Washington and Jefferson College. His writing at the intersection of science and art has been covered in depth by New York Times The New York Times Magazine, Scientific American, The New Yorker, the Atlantic, Oprah Magazine, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Science, Nature, and on shows like radio Lab, which I heard this morning, by the way, National Geographic's Star Talk with Neil deGrasse Tyson and Joe Rogan experience. Jonathan is the author or editor of eight books, including The Professor in the Cage: Why men fight and why we like to watch, The Storytelling Animal: How stories makes make us human. And The Story Paradox, which is getting published this month, how our love of storytelling builds societies and tears them down, which is about the dark side of humanity's storytelling instincts. So it's such a great pleasure to have you, Jonathan, welcome. How are you?

Jonathan Gottschall: I'm well, thank you. Thank you for having me.

Sucheta Kamath: So as we begin, maybe I should get this out of the way. You know, you're an author, and we're going to talk about writing, and how was the writing process? I know, your first book came out? I mean, this the storytelling animal was in 2014, or 13, 12. Okay. And I'm sure you have written a few things in between, but does it get easier? Do you have a hopeful message before we start talking about the content?

Jonathan Gottschall: No, it doesn't get easier. There are people for whom, you know, comes easy. There are people who just have more words, dozens and dozens of books, you know, in their lifetimes, and just have a fluidity. For most of us. It's a real slog, and for me, it's still a slog, I have gotten better as tricks of the trade and little secrets of craftsmanship that you can apply to get through things with less agony. But the agony is still part of it. Right now, like before I came on, you know, I'm sitting here just tearing my hair out about something new that I'm trying to write. And I wish I could find a way to write in a way that you know, wasn't so such a life and death sort of experience but so far I had I have gotten a little better with it, though. I mean, there is some wisdom that creeps in over the decades, but not quite enough. So yeah, I work very hard at it. There's a sort of patina or an illusion of kind of a graceful, powerful communicator hopefully. But that illusion of grace and power comes about through a lot of very ungraceful and feeble walking around until just through dint of trying and trying and trying, again, I guess executive function, I eventually get it something like write.

Sucheta Kamath: There's so many things we can talk about the writing, and then we'll never cover about your whole the prospect of stories and the brain. But I do know, I'm going to use you as an example to inspire the lot of students that I work with, and a lot of teachers that I train, because I think writers make writing look easy. And I blame them for it. Because I wish there was like a, you know, right side there's writing and then left side is their sketch of what they actually were trying to write and then x, so that, you know, lots of iterations went into it. 

Jonathan Gottschall: All right. So when I speak to, again, just to add to that, because we're thinking exactly along the same track. A lot of people think that they're bad at writing, because it's hard for them. And they think it's easy for the writers that they admire, because all you see is that that book that that perfectly polished, you know, gem, you don't see the agony that went into it. So when I speak to students about writing, I do exactly what you're talking about. I show them, you know, great writers, the greatest writers of Mount Rushmore of writers, you know, Toni Morrison and Ernest Hemingway and Jane Austen, and I show, you know, I show what their drafts look like, we have their drafts. And you can see that they're not just inspired geniuses, they are pimples, you know, the pimples, you can see them going over and over and over the drafts because the time when people were writing by hand or typing things out, and the whole, the layers of revision were visible, in a way they're not anymore. Word processing has taken away a lot of the sort of archaeological work that you can do going back and seeing those strata of different layers of in just different passes. So yeah, that's one thing that people should know about writing is that it's hard. It's hard for everyone. And it is no less hard for the writers that you admire.

Sucheta Kamath: Well, well, really, thank you for saying that. And just showing that little bit of it behind the scenes, as you said. So let's get into the topic today was stories in the brain. So what makes a story, such a powerful influence on shaping the development of our brain? I know it's a big question, but maybe we can start there.

Jonathan Gottschall: Yeah. This is crucial to both of the books that I wrote in a Story Telling Animal both books are about storytelling. So The Storytelling Animal comes out in 2012. And it's really mainly a celebration of the role of story in human life. It's a to an examination, from the point of view of sort of a new science of storytelling, psychologists, neuroscientists, communication scholars, some literary scholars like me, trying to find ways to study narrative psychology, narrative psychology is something I defined as the study of how our brains shape stories, and how stories shape brains. And the first book was really about the positive sculpting role that stories have in our lives. And the second book, The Story Paradox, is about that paradox that stories are really, really good for us. They're the best thing in life. And yet, they're really, really bad for us. They're the worst thing in life. And the both of those things at the same time. The good power of story and the bad power of story all stemmed from the same phenomenon. This is a very well-studied phenomenon, that the science of stories is new. But this branch of research goes back at least a couple of decades, and dozens and dozens of different studies by different researchers from different disciplines. And the key concept is something called narrative transportation, and narrative transportation is that delicious sense. We all love this sense of, of turning on the TV or listening to an audio book, or opening a narrative nonfiction magazine article And teleporting mentally, out of our own mundane realities and into these different storylines. We love this sensation. We seek it out, we spend hours and hours per day in these sort of hypnotic trances, you know, just watching a TV show, you know, we're lost, we're gone. And we love it. But we're, it's also a very vulnerable mental condition. So studies show that, you know, narrative transportation has a couple of key factors. One is a state of rapt attention. When we enter into a story, we pay close attention. Oftentimes, for hours on end, nothing in human life has that sort of effect of riveting the wandering mind. The other key thing about narrative transportation is, so it's sort of like a drunk, it rolls us into what I think is an authentically altered state of consciousness. It's a state of high attention. And it's also this is the crucial thing. It's a state of high suggestibility. People are especially open minded when they enter into Storyland. And that's wonderful, because they're open minded for all the messages that storytellers send. And it's also fearsome, because they are another way of putting this as they're especially gullible to the dark messages that that storytellers might sound.

Sucheta Kamath: You know, I've never heard anybody describe it so beautifully. I have been the recipient of that narrative transportation, and I have joyfully taken rides. But it reminds me of the, in my work with executive function, and particularly developing a relationship with the future self. I use the concept from psychology called chronesthesia, which is the same as mental mind mental time travel. But instead of letting that happen through stories, you do that tell, teleport yourself through passage of time, by doing future forward thinking and traveling back in time reminiscing, so to speak. But this ability is a really powerful way to really understand a continuity of self. So you're talking about this building blocks, or, or I see your description of this narrative transportation as wearing different clothes or wearing different robes as you're doing the time travel, mental time travel. Yeah. Now, one interesting thing, it occurred to me I was watching a movie. It's a new movie about Guantanamo Bay. And it can be so cruel, as you're saying about the stories that the, when prisoners had access to some books, very few, but they used to tear the last chapter. And can you imagine one of the ways to torment somebody worse than even like, waterboarding, if I may say, so? Yeah, that's really powerful and sad. But anyway, that was a little sidetrack there. So very, very important thing you said. And you have written the this quote you that story is where people go to practice the key skills of human social life. So tell us a little bit about what those key human skills or social skills that get practice even as your recipient of the narrative, and you may not be speaking so to speak.

Jonathan Gottschall: Right, right. Well, I mean, I think the easiest way to get a grasp on this, and I haven't spoken about this in a long time. So let me see if I can be semi coherent about this. But the easiest way to get a grasp on storytelling is in the pretend play of little children. So children, illustrate that story is not some sort of cultural invention is not something of the West. It's not something of the East. It's not something of the global north, the Global South. People tell stories all around the world, they tell them in pretty much exactly the same way. Stories are about characters confronting trouble trying to overcome stories are often have a effect usually have some sort of ethical stakes, some sort of moral conflict involved. You see all of that, in this spontaneous, untutored, pretend play of little children. So the whole structure of storytelling is already full formed in the stories of two and three and four-year-olds. They get better and better at it. Eventually, they'll start, you know, mimicking story patterns in their culture. They might start playing Batman and Wonder Woman or something like that, but the structure seems to be inherent. And why do little children play this way? Why do we animals play There's a pretty straightforward explanation for a play isn't. Play is practical. You know, play is a form of training. So lions, for instance, little baby lion cubs will roll around with each other and they'll play wrestle, and they'll play hunt, they'll practice up on the key skills, they need to survive as adult lions. And children are doing that too. They're there in their pretend play. They're working through the sort of social relationships, again, stories. Another big generalization you can make about stories, it's typically about the problems of human social life. Sometimes they're about like trying to overcome the elements, you know, like, Jacqueline news story might be just about the antagonist, its nature, it's just, it's so cold out. But for the most part, it's about conflicts in human social life. And so children are learning to navigate that the question is, isn't he grown up storytelling, just an elaborated form of children's pretend play? So if you watch like, you know, a movie, you're watching sort of the grown up equivalent of people playing publicly with dolls. You know, it's, it's strange, it's very strange, right? You have these chronic people, you know, playing play music, playing dolls, think play, make believe. And one theory of why we find this. So riveting, is that it allows us to sort of work through scenarios, problems scenarios, because, again, storytelling is obsessed with problems, trouble with conflict. And it allows us to work through different social scenarios, different threat scenarios, in a basically safe way. So we get all the learning, we get all the instruction of what it would be, like, you know, that confront some powerful man or woman, but we don't get killed at the end. As I put it, in the book, the hero dies in our stead, we don't have to pay for this experience, this experience comes to us cheaply.

Sucheta Kamath: And also, I think, you know, to polish our, as I mentioned, at the top of the intro that, you know, prefrontal cortex is the simulation machine. So stories kind of provide you with, like a nicely automated deck of possible scenarios, the way life may unfold, that we may fail to imagine. So it's such a nice way to know, other people's responses so different than ours. So it kind of helps you get out of your own head, so to speak, or be limited by your lack of imagination, so to speak. Yeah. So another question then, is about this, you know, stories, as you have pointed out, is that helps us change our minds, or they help affirm what we already believe, right? And makes us shows us rather, how we need not change our mind. And that's when you kind of start entering this paradox there. That. So do you think a word a story can tell two different stories to different people? And what factors do you think go into that? And how can we inoculate people's deafness from hearing the original intent? If there's such a thing?

Jonathan Gottschall: Yeah, that's a great question. One of the things that I've been sort of upset, obsessed with and fascinated by is this little simple film that was made about 80 years ago, it's called the Heider-Simmel film. And all the film shows you is this triangle, a square and a circle moving around on a blank screen. It's very, they're made out of cardboard, stop it stop. That ancient form the animation called stop action. So it's very primitive cartoon. But it's also sort of a weird the riveting story that's told in about 90 seconds. And different people are quite convinced they've seen a story. They are, they elaborate it, but they don't agree on what the story is. So some people see, you know, a love story. And other people see a sort of tragedy in others, people see a comedy. There's a lot of diversity in the stories that people see. And it's kind of fun to watch it. No one argues about it. And everyone's kind of fascinating, but that people see different stories. And but I see that that whole Heider-Simmel phenomenon as something close to the root of humanity's greatest evils. This way we have of looking out on the world, seeing the same footage, exactly the same input, but coming up with radically different narrative interpretations of what's happening. And when I was finishing the book, there was a very convenient thing that happened. It was a terrible thing. It was also extremely convenient. And it was the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol. I watched in sort of fascination while this real life Heider-Simmel film played out. It was like the simulation in which, you know, millions and millions 10s of millions of Americans, maybe a billion people around the world are watching this real life Heider-Simmel film in real time, and coming up with radically different interpretations, narrative interpretations based upon based upon the narratives that they came in. So some people see, you know, you know, Black Lives Matters, protesters saw horrible evidence of police double standards, because it seemed like they were going easy on these white protesters, or they were really mean to the black protesters and moderates. In and white people said, Now, come on, this is just a case of them being over, the police being overwhelmed and getting routed by 1000s and 1000s of protesters don't make everything about race. And people on the left, you know, see some kind of hideous uprising against democracy. People on the right are watching a completely different film, same footage, different film. This is not this is not an attack on democracy. This is a last-ditch effort by patriots to save democracy. And people in queueing on say, No, you know what this was actually it was a false flag operation by Black Lives Matter and Antifa. And there's this whole diabolical effort to frame Trump, Trump didn't say strongly. So what's interesting is, and what's discouraging is that we have a storytelling is very good at breaking down barriers, building bridges, but we fall very easily into our narrative scripts. So we watched that film, and we started watch the uprising. And we have sort of a narrative mold that we already have in place, depending on our politics, and we take that mold, and we just force it down over the messiness of the reality of what happened. And this is how we get trapped, I think, inside various narrative perspectives, because we just see, I can sharpen this a little bit, our narratives, it will be nice, it would be nice. If we formed our narratives based upon facts, that would be the logical way to do it a Flasco tell us a quantum rule, gather facts, and then use those facts to create a narrative. Unfortunately, tragically, we kind of do it the opposite way. We have a story. And we use that story, to select the facts that we are going to credit as true.

Sucheta Kamath: So well said I think you are hitting on this point that this is human brains blind spot. If, you know, as Danny Kahneman talks about, like their 150, cognitive, maybe biases that we harbor and this is like confirmation bias, I see what I need already believe. And then I you know it this also reminded me of the Colbert, the study, the social psychology did a study on Colbert Report. And they asked, based on Republican versus Democrat, you know, participants and Democrats thought it was making fun of Republicans and Republicans thought it was making fun of Democrats and had a similar effect. Exactly. And to me, I just couldn't see like, how could you see that? You know, so that's just my blood lines, but to but yeah, right. And I think in this paradox, what I got from your book and your writing is it's really hard to get out of it. It's so like, the magnetic power of story is so powerful and it's just so engaging and beautiful that as we're getting sucked into it, we don't even feel the suction. Yeah. So does that mean that we are doomed? I mean, I think please bring us some hope. I think that you just called it humans live in a storm of stories. I think that's what you're talking about. Because the eye of the storm and then you can never get out. Are you pleasantly in peace while you're in the eye of the storm?

Jonathan Gottschall: Yeah, I am. As you mentioned before we went on air you know, the book begins with me, you know, feeling pretty depressed and confused and getting drunk in a bar. Watching people kind of have a you know, scribbling on a bar napkin trying to figure out how to make sense enough to write the book So I did write the book in a somewhat depressed mood to be honest. And the original, the original last line of the book was something like this. It's obvious that human beings can't live without stories. But as technology continues to enhance their power to create disorder, it seems like we might not be able to live with them much longer either. And a couple of my readers said, huh, what are you saying there? Are you saying, you know, stories are going to destroy the world? Or you're saying that we're going to, we're headed towards a sort of extinction event? And if so, please don't say that, because it's kind of a bummer. Wait in your book. And I did think that that was on reflection, I thought, you know, this is too dark. Not just because it's, you know, it's gonna make people feel sad, but it's too dark. It's, it's, it's not hopeful enough. But I do think we are up against it. Our storytelling instincts are very, very deeply embedded in us. And they're very, very, it's very, very hard to change anything about the way people consume stories in the way people structure stories. The way we are attracted, especially to moralistic storytelling, stories of heroes and villains. And these are basically cartoons that portray us as the good guys and them as the bad guys. And just lead the sort of cycles of, of our side, their side producing morality plays that star, the other side is the villain. I got very obsessed in the book, kind of unhelpfully with Plato's Republic. And the great star of Plato's Republic is Socrates. And Socrates is this wonderful character. He's kind of this little short, fat skinny guy, he scores. He's sort of skinny fat. He's good. Yeah, he has no, I don't know if I'm interested in his appearance. And I imagine that he's very funny looking, because he didn't have any money as any clothes better, better Nice. All he does is just kind of boot food and wine from his friends. He hangs out in street corners and just you know, harangues people as they walk by. And Socrates is very, very worried about the power of stories. This is 2400 years ago. And he's saying that, you know, story has this incredible constructive power, but it also has this incredible destructive power. And what should we do about it? Well, he says, let's throw all the storytellers over the city wall, let's just banish them from society. That way, they won't be amping up our emotion and driving us crazy and setting us against each other. It's a very, very modern book, it's very, it's considered an omen, you know, of what's happening now, I think. But at the end, he says, you know, this isn't gonna work, you can't you can't manage the storytellers that's not gonna work. Let's try all these different methods. And he goes through a bunch of different possibilities. And one of them is this, I'm not a Philistine, I love stories as much as you do. You know, we can't live with them, because they're so dangerous, but we can't live without them either. So this is what I'm going to do personally. There'll be some sort of social societal level solution. But personally, what I'm gonna do is I'm going to go to the theater, and join myself. But the whole time the plays going on, I'm going to repeat to myself in my head, the arguments that I've been making about storytelling, so he's so you have to imagine played, standing at the back of the theater, watching the play and going, don't, don't, don't, don't let them change, change your mind. Don't let them rouse you emotionally. So he's sort of saying like, he's what he's going to do is try to fight off the spell of narrative transportation, he's not going to let it suck him in. And of course, that would destroy all the pleasure of storytelling. And so is this sort of comical scene to me, I kind of laugh when I think about it. It's sort of like a wizard against wizard fight. So the you have the, the actors on stage, and they're casting their spells or doing their magic from the stage. And Socrates is sort of chanting these counterspells counter magic trying to counteract their power over him. But of course, it will destroy his pleasure and stories, and eventually, he's probably going to get tired, and he's going to give it you know, his, his ability to keep his executive function, you know, strong enough to fight these guys off. So it's a it's a very hopeless in that the guy has been struggling for a whole book to come up with a solution to the problem of storytelling. And then he comes up at the end with this really feeble, you know, solution that just isn't going to work. And I do feel like we're in that boat a little bit, you know, the great hope is, again, to go back to the ancient Greeks, again, the great hope of human self-improvement, including societal self-improvement is know yourself, know yourself. And the idea is that you can't, you know, fix yourself, you can't fix your society, if you don't actually understand why you know what human nature is, and how we organize ourselves. And so you can come up with good solutions. But I do think that educating ourselves is the only hope as the role of power in power of stories in our life. Because most of us have this sort of Bozo confidence. The stories don't affect us very much. You can ask people this in labs, and you say to them, Hey, you know, do you think that the stories you consume have any influence over you, and they sway over you, they change how you think, how you feel, how you act? How you buy, how you vote, people? No, no, I don't think so. But then you different studies that show that they absolutely do, they actually do change us, they change how we think we vote we buy, and we feel how we act. You have a they have a lot of power, but we don't know it. So I do feel like we're in a bit of a bind. I do come up with some solutions at the end, but I also admit that there's a real case for pessimism. Hmm.

Sucheta Kamath: Yeah. Yeah, I think you know, the, and that's why I relate to it so closely, because this sounds to me a very metacognitive process. When we think about executive function solutions to compensate for once poor executive function, inability to manage goal directed persistence, or, like the example you're getting, don't let them get you, you know, having, like, really taking a perspective that I'm, I'm subjected to this sensory input, but I am not that, you know, it's just that mindfulness. And in social science, it's called the Batman effect, you know, like thinking what would somebody else do? And, and I am not me, I am representing that person who has conquered those feelings. And so metacognition is two things, right? Like, once you said, Know thyself, do I know myself. But secondly, can I think, from my perspective, that's not mine, so I'm not so gullible, or I'm not so influenceable. Without giving up my identity or sense of self, I think that's the critical part that I seen from your writing. And also, what I'm seeing around is we just don't have enough resolve, or that fiber in our fabric that that we call moral compass or alignment, I don't mean to be so judgy. But I do think it requires a lot of cultivation of new habits.

Jonathan Gottschall: Again, I agree with what you're saying. But just to make sure that this this point gets across, it's like, the problem is entering into a story. And this is true, if you are consuming the story. And it's largely true, if you are producing the story, and you produce the story, the very first step you have to do is narrative transportation. The author has to transport themselves into story, imagine what it would feel like, you know, to be a scared child trembling in a closet, as you know, their abusive father walks by what would that feel like? They have to, you know, have this imaginative transference in the life of a different person. And when you consume a story, if we're going to enjoy the story, and if the story is going to have power, by the way, stories, don't transport us. Don't have this special power to sway us. It involves, as step one, reaching out to the toggle switch. Actually, you don't do this. You don't you don't you don't do this. It's done to you by the storyteller, the storyteller. Yeah. Which is in writing, and turns off your executive function. Oh, wow. That's what you it puts you into that trance. So there's no there's no...

Sucheta Kamath: Conscious control there.

Jonathan Gottschall: There's no conscious control. The whole the whole magic of storytelling is based upon a storyteller in a somewhat literal sense.

Sucheta Kamath: So you're really praying for bad storytellers. Which is not possible because only good storytellers surface and go higher and become more consumable. 

Jonathan Gottschall: Well, then you become then you become, you're in a splitting the baby situation. Oh, wow. You know, you're just like, you can hope for bad storytellers. But if you hope for bad storytellers, and you lose all the good things that stories do. So this example that I gave in the book, you know, try to give examples. The good thing stories do as well. You know, you can you know, we live in a massively multicultural society And arguably humans aren't meant for this, you know, we're tribal, we're ethnocentric. And this is a grand and beautiful experiment. And like all experiments, it could fail hideously. You know, humans are crooked stuff, you know, human nature's crooked stuff. So how can we how can we get? How can we see past our superficial differences to a common humanity? You know, and one, one example is one solution to this is diversity training, for instance. But diversity training is, you know, expensive, it's usually very small-scale groups. And there's a lot of, there's a lot of inconvenient data that suggests it doesn't really work. People may learn what to say, but it doesn't necessarily change how they feel. You can take those same people, though masses of people, this is this happens that at extraordinary scale, and you can expose them to sitcoms and dramas, and radio programs that just happen to feature people of diverse backgrounds, you know, people who are gay and people who are of different races and different religions and different ethnic groups, and so forth. And all around the world. I mean, this is this is an incredibly well-established finding, people's attitudes reliably move in a direction of tolerance. And they do so quickly. And they do so with durability, and they do so with much more power and staying power to then something like, you know, standard approaches to prejudice reduction, like diversity training, which again, doesn't seem to work all that well. And millions and millions and millions of people can consume these stories and and experience these effects. So if you see, we can't we can't pray for bad storytellers. Because without good storytellers, that really crucial work that popular storytelling has been doing behind the scenes quietly in a way that we can't quite sense has sort of made society work. I mean, so that the paradox isn't, isn't that stories are bad stories, or stories are really good. The subtitle of the book is how stories build societies and how they tear them down. So we can't quite lose, lose track of the first part of that story, too, are doing a lot of crucial work, and we'd be in big trouble without them.

Sucheta Kamath: Yes, yes, I'm pausing. Because I think you're right. It's like, you know, taking away something to fix the existence of or it having a negative impact. We shouldn't do that. So Jonathan, I was wondering if you know how the marketing people get it, right, they know how to wrap a story. And you have said this before that you know, burrow a message into human mind. And if you want to borrow then create a story. And this reminds me of the, the Pepsodent you know, the first toothpaste how Claude Hopkins actually told people that you have something invisible in palpable and you're not even aware which is this thin film on your teeth. And and the only solution to get rid of it is this toothpaste and then of course, boom, that kind of was the birth of first marketing ploy. So I do feel that there is a way to positively influence people to align themselves back on the on the their own moral compass so to speak. But you're right, because stories can be told beautiful ways. It can go in either direction. So do you think that are there any? Are you seeing anything that's being done right? Like you said, you know, the monsters behave like monsters all the time. But to get good people to be here monstrously you must first tell them a story, a big lie, a dark conspiracy. So to get them to not behave like monsters, what do we need to do? And that's the sad part like all of us are capable of being monsters. That was the sad, lonely tear from my eyes.

Jonathan Gottschall: Oh, no, I think it's I think it's something. You know, one of the things I'm hoping I'll get from my readers is self-reflection. I tried not to write a book that was partisan. I tried to write a book that anyone in my audience would realize that this is not a them problem. This is not something that it's that whatever side you're on politically, it's not about the other side. These are the crazy maniacs, we're living in fiction stories all the time. It's a human problem. It applies to all of us. What can we do about it? There's two things. One is we have to accept the fact that people don't yield easily or change their mind easily to argument and evidence, and they also resist stories. that go against what they already believe. But they don't resist them as hard. Hope seems to come from better storytelling, not from better arguments, better data and so forth. You know, people just don't yield to that. The most important thing I'd like to see is a move away from the most kind of easy default structure of stories, which is to say, hey, there's some heroes, I'm sorry, there's some villains, they're victimizing these victims. And there's also these heroes, these good guys, and they're going to rush to the rescue. I'd like to see us move away from that toward a less cartoonish morality, in our stories, we're villainizing each other in our narratives of reality, in the most kind of primitive and cartoonish sort of way, it doesn't work. If you say to those people, for instance, go back to the Capitol riot, if you say to those people storming the Capitol, Hey, you're the bad guys in this story. They're not going to accept that story. They're just going to reject the story. They know what happens to bad guys and stories, they get killed. In the end, they get humiliated, they get they get punished. Well, they can say is like, Screw that, I'm gonna go write my own story, cry, be the good guy. And you're the bad guy who gets their comeuppance at the end. So oh, all these narratives in which we attack each other, show a pretty poor understanding of human psychology. If you punch someone, it doesn't cause them to surrender, it causes them to punch you back. Yes. And then you just have and then you just have a fist fight going on. And right now we're living inside a sort of story war, a civil story where we're at war with these, these narratives and counter narratives. And, and that's good that we're in a story war, and not not a real war. The problem is that story wars reliably escalate to the real thing. And people are getting increasingly concerned that, you know, this, this, this, this could escalate to something scary. So the main thing I like to see is less visualization and our narratives, it's easy to see when the other guy, you know, is has has a narrative that's kind of cartoonish, or moralistic or, you know, exaggerated or bad in any way. But it's harder to turn that scrutiny on ourselves and say, hey, you know, you're a storytelling animal to what are the problems in the story that I use, to structure my reality to make sense of things to, to define my identity. And we have to be just as skeptical or more skeptical of our own narratives as the other guys.

Sucheta Kamath: You know, what I concluded for myself is this practice of humility. It's a constructive, cultivated humility, and really toning down or muting My righteous indignation or this high moral ground like I'm just fabulous and more. Just having sowing some seeds of pleasant doubt.

Jonathan Gottschall: I think it's great. I think it's great. Yeah, that's what I'm after. And not just more humility from you, but also more empathy for them. Yeah, wherever you're, wherever you're, you know, love that capital, right? Those people deserve empathy. They're not bad people. They are in a story where everything they are doing is heroic, righteous, self-sacrificing, and patriotic. That's the story. They're inside. They just had the misfortune to encounter that story to believe those storytellers. And they're but for the grace of God, go i there, but for the grace of God go you if you've been exposed to their culture, and their education, and their parents, and their religious upbringing, I mean, you wouldn't believe the same thing and so die. So that sort of empathy is easy to generate for the wretched of the earth for people who are suffering for people who are poor and in pain, people who are victimized, I'd like to see us try to extend empathy to the devil, empathy for the villain of the story, because the villain is not the other. The villain is us, the villainous who we would have been, if we were, you know, born into their conditions.

Sucheta Kamath: Well, brilliant with that. I mean, I just encourage everybody to get this book. We will be having this out when your book is out. So please go and get this book. It's it will change your mind, change your heart, but more importantly, I think it'll, it will nudge you to extend your hand that you shake with other people and not roll it into a punch. Yeah, yeah. Well, as we close, I asked this question off enough, my guess what, what are you reading or what's influencing your mind? Or that you can share with our audience so that they can think in the same ways become Jonathan themselves?

Jonathan Gottschall: Well, yeah, I saw so much of a bummer about storytelling. Let's focus on the good side of stories and the sort of the joy of stories. I'm really listening to Lonesome Dove by McMurtry, Larry McMurtry. Lonesome Dove is my desert island book. Really? It's Oh, yeah. There's a quote by a writer named Christopher Morley, a 20th century writer and I quote him in the storytelling and when the quote goes something like this, he's just talking about how great a story is. He says, the character in his story says, When you sell a man a book, you don't just sell him 12 ounces of paper and ink and glue, you sell him a whole new life, love and friendship and humor and ships at sea by night. There's all heaven and earth in a book in a real book. And for me, Lonesome Dove, which is sort of a cowboy story, a Western story. Is that just a magical story and, and I would recommend to readers to try the audiobook, if you're an audiobook person, do this, because then you have all this sort of virtuosic literary art to McMurtry. And on top of that, you have this incredible performance by I think it's the hoarsely, a well-known actor, you know, it's kind of this gravelly, baritone, type of voice, and it just, it just, it's just a magical story. I really, really love it.

Sucheta Kamath: Brilliant, thank you so much for being here. And just really opening our eyes. And thank you for even though it was occasionally discouraging for you, as you're capturing the, the temperament of the country and our whole world and the plight of interconnected hyperconnectivity. I think it was an essential. I just see this as an essential read for all students, particularly who are trying to bring themselves out onto the world and just know their place. So thank you, Jonathan, for being here. Thank you, all the listeners for tuning in today. If you love what you're listening, share with a friend or colleague or family member, and keep spreading the joy. And make sure your story as you tell it is infused with a little bit of humility, and a little bit of pleasant self-doubt so that you can be more recipient of other people's wisdom. So thank you for being here tonight.

Jonathan Gottschall: Thank you. That was well. Appreciate it.

Sucheta Kamath: Absolutely. Take care.