“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” says American author Joan Didion. Stories have existed in all forms—parables, poems, tall tales, myths, novels, plays, songs—across almost all cultures and throughout human history. But is storytelling essential to survival? Is it a driver of evolution or a byproduct? What is the primal urge that drove our distant ancestors to crawl into a dark cave and paint portraits on rocky walls? Join a spirited discussion of how science has begun to explain the uniquely human gift of narrative, looking to the brain for insight on how neurons alight when we hear a tale, to developmental psychology for clues about the role of storytelling in learning, and to storytellers themselves for explanations that ultimately inform a greater understanding of who we are as a species.
See all content from Why We Tell Stories
Jay Allison is an independent journalist, documentary maker, and leader in public broadcasting. He is a frequent producer for NPR news programs and This American Life, and a six-time Peabody Award winner. He is well known for his various roles as envisioner, curator, and producer of The Moth Radio Hour, Lost & Found Sound, This I Believe—and he co-edited the bestselling books based on that series. He is also founder of Transom.org, the Public Radio Exchange, and WCAI, the public radio station on Cape Cod where Allison lives with his family.
Paul Bloom’s research explores how children and adults understand the physical and social world, with special focus on morality, religion, fiction, and art. A professor of psychology at Yale University, Bloom has written for scientific journals such as Nature and Science, but also for publications with more general circulation, such as The New York Times, the Guardian, and the Atlantic. He is the author or editor of four books, including How Children Learn the Meanings of Words, Descartes’ Baby, and, most recently, How Pleasure Works. He is currently writing a book about the developmental origins of good and evil.
Jeffrey Eugenides grew up in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, and attended Brown and Stanford Universities. His novel Middlesex was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Ambassador Book Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, France’s Prix Medicis, and the Lambda Literary Award. It was also selected for Oprah’s Book Club. Eugenides’ first novel, The Virgin Suicides, was adapted into a critically-acclaimed film by Sofia Coppola. His latest book, The Marriage Plot, was #1 National Best Seller, winner of the Indie Book Award, and nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Eugenides is on the faculty of Princeton University, and lives in Princeton, New Jersey.
Photo by Gasper Tringale
Jonathan Gottschall writes books about the intersection of science and art. He is one of the leading figures in a new movement that is trying to bridge the humanities-sciences divide. His most recent book, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, draws on the latest research in neuroscience, psychology and biology to argue that storytelling has evolved to ensure our species’ survival.
Gottschall teaches in the English Department at Washington & Jefferson College in Pennsylvania and blogs at Psychology Today and the Huffington Post. While his Ph.D. is in english, his main dissertation advisor was the prominent evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, and he splits his academic writing between psychology and literary journals. His work has been featured in The New York Times Magazine, Scientific American Mind, New Scientist and The Chronicle of Higher Education, among others. He is the author or editor of six books, including The Rape of Troy: Evolution, Violence and the World of Homer and Graphing Jane Austen: The Evolutionary Basis of Literary Meaning, which he co-authored with Joseph Carroll, John Johnson, and Dan Kruger.
Joyce Carol Oates is a recipient of the National Book Award and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction. She has written some of the most enduring fiction of our time, including the national bestsellers We Were the Mulvaneys and Blonde (a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize), and the New York Times bestsellers The Falls (winner of the 2005 Prix Femina Etranger) and The Gravedigger’s Daughter. She is the Roger S. Berlind Distinguished Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University and has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978. In 2003 she received the Common Wealth Award for Distinguished Service in Literature and The Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement, and in 2006 she received the Chicago Tribune Lifetime Achievement Award.
Keith Oatley has spent the last twenty years researching the psychology of reading and writing fiction, as both a scientist and the author of three novels. He is known for his theory that fiction is a kind of simulation that runs in our minds, teaching us how emotional and social worlds function. His research has shown that reading fiction can increase empathy and prompt psychological change in readers.
Oatley’s first novel, The Case of Emily V., follows Sigmund Freud and Sherlock Holmes as they work on the same case of a young woman who seems to have killed her guardian. The book won the 1994 Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Novel. His other novels are A Natural History, which explores the psychology of a scientist in 1849 as he strives to understand the nature of infectious disease, and most recently Therefore Choose, about how we have to make decisions and be responsible for them, whether or not we know how they will turn out.
Oatley is professor emeritus of applied cognitive psychology at University of Toronto. As well as the psychology of fiction, he has researched physiological psychology, visual perception, artificial intelligence, human-computer interaction, and the psychology of emotion. He studied at the University of Cambridge and University College London and worked at the University of Sussex and University of Glasgow before taking up his post in Toronto.
The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre is dedicated to fostering both an appreciation and education of the arts through affordable and high quality comedic performances and classes. The Upright CItizen’s Brigade first brought its award winning sketch comedy show to New York in 1996. The Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre opened in 1999 and quickly became the place for great, cutting-edge, comedy. The UCBT offers the best and most innovative improv and sketch comedy in over 25 unique shows a week. It opened a location in Los Angeles in 2005, becoming the only comedy Theatre and Training Center with stages and operations on both coasts. It also expanded online, through UCBcomedy.com, the virtual home of all things comedy from improv, sketch and standup to pranks, jokes, and podcasts.