The Intelligence of Emotions: Philosopher Martha Nussbaum on How Storytelling Rewires Us

Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself.

by Maria Popova in Brainpickings

Martha C. Nussbaum
Martha C. Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, who holds appointments in both the philosophy department and the law school.

“The power of ‘the Eye of the Heart,’ which produces insight, is vastly superior to the power of thought, which produces opinions,” the great British economic theorist and philosopher E.F. Schumacher wrote in his 1973 meditation on how we know what we know. He was responding to the Persian poet and philosopher Rumi who, seven centuries earlier, extolled “the eye of the heart” as seventy-fold more seeing than the “sensible eyes” of the intellect. To the intellectually ambitious, this might sound like a squishy notion — or a line best left to The Little Prince. But as contemporary scientists continue to shed light on how our emotions affect our susceptibility to disease, it is becoming increasingly clear that our emotional lives are equipped with a special and non-negligible kind of bodily and cognitive intelligence.

The nature of that intelligence and how we can harness its power is what Martha Nussbaum, whom I continue to consider the most compelling and effective philosopher of our time, examines in her magnificent 2001 book Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (public library). Titled after Proust’s conception of the emotions as “geologic upheavals of thought,” Nussbaum’s treatise offers a lucid counterpoint to the old idea that our emotions are merely animal energies or primal impulses wholly separate from our cognition. Instead, she argues that they are a centerpiece of moral philosophy and that any substantive theory of ethics necessitates a substantive understanding of the emotions.

Nussbaum writes:

A lot is at stake in the decision to view emotions in this way, as intelligent responses to the perception of value. If emotions are suffused with intelligence and discernment, and if they contain in themselves an awareness of value or importance, they cannot, for example, easily be sidelined in accounts of ethical judgment, as so often they have been in the history of philosophy. Instead of viewing morality as a system of principles to be grasped by the detached intellect, and emotions as motivations that either support or subvert our choice to act according to principle, we will have to consider emotions as part and parcel of the system of ethical reasoning. We cannot plausibly omit them, once we acknowledge that emotions include in their content judgments that can be true or false, and good or bad guides to ethical choice. We will have to grapple with the messy material of grief and love, anger and fear, and the role these tumultuous experiences play in thought about the good and the just.

[…]

Emotions are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself.

One of Nussbaum’s central points is that the complex cognitive structure of the emotions has a narrative form — that is, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and what we feel shape our emotional and ethical reality, which of course is the great psychological function of literature and the reason why art can function as a form of therapy. What emerges is an intelligent manifesto for including the storytelling arts in moral philosophy.

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Why Evangelical Films Fail, by Peter J. Leithart

Evangelicalism is a word religion. I’m a big fan of words, but even talking pictures aren’t fundamentally about words. Evangelical films over-explain, over-talk. They don’t trust the images to do the work.

by Peter J. Leithart • First Things 

Opening nationwide October 16th
Opening nationwide October 16th

I went to a screening of Woodlawn last Saturday. Directed by Birmingham brothers Jon and Andrew Erwin, the film tells the true story of revival among the players on the football team at Woodlawn High School in Birmingham during a racially tense period of the 1970s.

The film focuses on Tony Nathan, the tailback who takes the position from a white teammate and becomes a star. The real-life Tony Nathan went on to play at Alabama and for the Miami Dolphins.

It’s a moving story, with some high-pitched emotional scenes. The acting is good, especially Jon Voight as Bear Bryant, Nic Bishop as Woodlawn’s coach, Tandy Gerelds, and Caleb Castille who plays Nathan in his first film. Technically, Evangelical films have come a long way.

The large crowd at the screening cheered when Woodlawn scored a winning touchdown, shouted when Tony Nathan dodged a tackle, laughed at the punch lines. It was a very into-it crowd.

Yet I came away from the film dissatisfied, as I do from many films by Evangelicals. I think there are a number of reasons for that dissatisfaction, but at base the problem is theological (ain’t it always)…

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Also

Watch the ‘Woodlawn‘ trailer

The Blind Side Leading the Blind: Better Faith-Based Filmmaking through Better Stories, by Gary David Stratton

Why Most “Christian” Movies Suck, by Brennan Smith

The Future of Faith in Film? Youth and Evangelicals Outstrip All Other Movie-going Audiences, by David Kinnaman

Current Films by Act One Graduates Reveal Strange Dichotomy in Box Office Mojo’s ‘Christian Movie’ Category, by Gary David Stratton

Christians in Hollywood: A Mission Impossible Writer Offers a Treatment, by TV Writer Ron Austin

Neil Gaiman on How Stories Last, by Maria Popova

Wisdom from a prolific novelist, graphic novelist, non-fiction writer and screenwriter (O, and did we mention children’s books?)

“Stories … are genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance.”   – Neil Gaiman

by  in Brain Pickings

Would Homeland (Claire Danes) or Daredevil (Charlie Cox) have made it without Gaiman's Stardust?
Gaiman’s Stardust helped launch Claire Danes (Homeland) and Charlie Cox (Daredevil) to new heights.

Stories have shapes, as Vonnegut believed, and they in turn give shape to our lives. But how do stories like the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm or Alice in Wonderland continue to enchant the popular imagination generation after generation — what is it that makes certain stories last?

That’s what the wise and wonderful Neil Gaiman explores in a fantastic lecture two and a half years in the making, part of the Long Now Foundation’s nourishing and necessary seminars on long-term thinking.

Nearly half a century after French molecular biologist Jacques Monod proposed what he called the “abstract kingdom” — a conceptual parallel to the biosphere, populated by ideas that propagate like organisms do in the natural world — and after Richard Dawkins built upon this concept to coin the word “meme,” Gaiman suggests stories are a life-form obeying the same rules of genesis, reproduction, and propagation that organic matter does.

Please enjoy, with transcribed highlights below.

Considering the scientific definition of life as a process that “includes the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death,” Gaiman argues that stories are alive — that they can, and do, outlive even the world’s oldest living trees by millennia:

Do stories grow? Pretty obviously — anybody who has ever heard a joke being passed on from one person to another knows that they can grow, they can change. Can stories reproduce? Well, yes. Not spontaneously, obviously — they tend to need people as vectors. We are the media in which they reproduce; we are their petri dishes… Stories grow, sometimes they shrink. And they reproduce — they inspire other stories. And, of course, if they do not change, stories die.

On story being the original and deepest creative act:

Pictures, I think, may have been a way of transmitting stories. The drawings on cave walls that we assume are acts of worship or of sympathetic magic, intended to bring hunters luck and good kills. I keep wondering if, actually, they’re just ways of telling stories: “We came over that bridge and we saw a herd of wooly bisons.” And I wonder that because people tell stories — it’s an enormous part of what makes us human.

We will do an awful lot for stories — we will endure an awful lot for stories. And stories, in their turn — like some kind of symbiote — help us endure and make sense of our lives.

A lot of stories do appear to begin as intrinsic to religions and belief systems — a lot of the ones we have have gods or goddesses in them; they teach us how the world exists; they teach us the rules of living in the world. But they also have to come in an attractive enough package that we take pleasure from them and we want to help them propagate.

Gaiman illustrates this with the most breath-stopping testament to what we endure for stories as they in turn help us endure, by way of his 97-year-old cousin Helen, a Polish Holocaust survivor…

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Sandman-covers-1
A prolific writer across multiple genres, Gaiman’s Sandman grew to 10 collections and became one of the most enduring and beloved graphic novels series.

 

is a reader, writer, interestingness hunter-gatherer, and curious mind at large, who writes for WiredUK, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, among others. She is also an am an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

The ‘Story Behind the Story’: Making Lit Matter, by Erick Sierra

An English professor reflects on teaching literature and linking it to what students find viscerally and deeply important.

As American society increasingly questions the importance of what we in the humanities do, in the classroom I’ve been able to depend less and less on the grand narratives that long ago motivated my own passion for literature and instead imagined an importance for literature—a story behind the story—sourced not in grand abstract metanarratives, but in what students themselves find viscerally and deeply important. 

by  • The Chronicle for Higher Education

Signifying nothing?
Why can’t we just read a really awesome story, like The Hunger Games or Harry Potter?

In one of the first courses I took as an undergraduate, the English professor walked into class one morning invoking the name of Faulkner as if it were a sacred incantation: “Today, ladies and gentleman, we are going to read Faulkner.”  We students shivered at the sublimity of the name.  Since this trick seemed to work with his students, I figured I, now some 20 years later and new professor in my own right, would try the same trick with mine: “Today, ladies and gentleman, we are going to read—Faulkner.” But something was conspicuously missing here.  Students just stared at me.  After class I overheard some of them whispering down the hall: “I hear Faulkner’s novels are zig-zaggy and confusing and filled with all this weird stuff about race.  Why, oh why, must we read Faulkner?”

My own undergraduate experience immersed me in a sense of the gravitas of Great Literature. Matthew Arnold had claimed that “the best which has been thought and said” had the power to elevate the mind and transfigure the human spirit. The school of New Criticism elevated the critic as high priest of the poem, then later the poststructuralists gave the critic full apotheosis as one who, through the act of criticism, unveils vast hidden structures of domination. All in all, I felt a form of belief palpitating throughout my college education: a belief that Great Literature, the act of engaging with it, especially in its torturing difficulty, carried with it near metaphysical weight. So I was only happy to take up monastic vows to Literature: night after sleepless undergraduate night, followed by eight grueling graduate years at the poverty line.

But now I found myself standing before students far less concerned with Literature’s sublime powers than with gaining tools for a precarious job market and towering college loans. So what they wanted to know is, Why? Why subject oneself to the sound and the fury of a plotless modernist novel, or the white noise of a fragmented postmodern novel? Why all this needless obscurantism?  And why must these novelists fuss so much about race?  Why can’t we just read a really awesome story, like The Hunger Games or Harry Potter?  In response, I continued proclaiming heady metanarratives: “Look, this has been considered by the best minds to be important!  The best that’s been thought and said!  It’s GOOD for you.”  They yawned, checked their Twitter accounts, and at the end of the semester left me a Yelp rating of 1.5 stars….

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Erick Sierra is an associate professor of English at Trinity Christian College.

The Future of StoryTelling: Wisdom in the Age of Information, by Maria Popova

From 2014 Future of Storytelling | Reinventing the way stories are told

“We believe that having access to more information produces more knowledge, which results in more wisdom. But, if anything, the opposite is true…” -Maria Popova

by Maria Popova • BrainPickings

See also: Maria Popova Interviews Amanda Palmer on The Art of Asking

Maria_Popova_portraitMaria Popova is a Futures of Entertainment Fellow, a hunter-gatherer and curious mind at large. Her blog, Brain Pickings, is a “human-powered discovery engine for interestingness, culling and curating cross-disciplinary curiosity-quenchers, and separating the signal from the noise to bring you things you didn’t know you were interested in until you are.” Follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

Why has the Imagination been Sidelined in Literature? by Damien G. Walter

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.” – Albert Einstein

Imagination is a powerful force for progress. So why has it been sidelined in the one place it should be most welcome – literature.

by Damien G. Walter

51fqybsmj7lWhen Albert Einstein claimed that imagination was more important than knowledge (in 1929), those who knew about such things might have said putting a man on the moon was impossible. But those who imagined more, including writers of science fiction, knew better. We know that imagination is a powerful force for progress in our lives and in society. And yet it seems that in the place imagination should be most celebrated – in stories, fiction and literature – it has long been sidelined.

Ursula K Le Guin, arguably the greatest living writer of imaginative literature, made a powerful defence of imagination in her speech to theNational Book Awards on Thursday, at which she was presented a lifetime achievement award. Le Guin dedicated her win to the “the realists of a larger reality” who for 50 years had been excluded from literature’s awards, her “fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction – writers of the imagination.”

It’s hard to dispute the exclusion of writers of imagination from mainstream literature, not simply from its prizes but from every part of literary culture. But why has this happened? The standard explanation draws on one part quality – genres like science fiction simply aren’t “well written” enough – and two parts the idea that imagination is in some way childish. Writers of imagination are fine when they address children and adolescents, but adults are meant to get their head out of the clouds and keep their feet firmly planted in reality.

This idea reaches further than literature of course. Over the same five decade period Le Guin references, our education system has systematically sidelined the imaginative disciplines of the arts and humanities, until we find ourselves at the position today where any non STEM subject has seen a de facto obliteration of its status and funding…

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Damien G Walter is a writer of weird and speculative fiction. His stories have been published in Electric Velocipede, Serendipity and many other magazines as well as BBC Radio, and numerous anthologies. He reviews for The Fix and blogs for Guardian Unlimited. In summer 2008 he will be attending the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy workshop at UC San Diego.

Empathy, Neurochemistry, and the Dramatic Arc, by Paul J. Zak

Dramatic stories cause us to act more connected to the people around us. Here’s why.

From a story-telling perspective, the way to keep an audience’s attention is to continually increase the tension in the story. Ben’s story does this. How will Ben’s father be able to enjoy his son’s last weeks of life? What internal resources will he draw upon to be strong and support his dying son?

by Paul J. Zak, Ph.D. • Claremont Graduate University

Ben is Dying

It is quiet and dark. The theater is hushed. James Bond skirts along the edge of a building as his enemy takes aim. Here in the audience, heart rates increase and palms sweat.  I know this to be true because instead of enjoying the movie myself, I am measuring the brain activity of a dozen viewers. For me, excitement has a different source: I am watching an amazing neural ballet in which a story line changes the activity of people’s brains.

Many business people have already discovered the power of storytelling in a practical sense – they have observed how compelling a well-constructed narrative can be. But recent scientific work is putting a much finer point on just how stories change our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.

We found that character-driven stories consistently cause oxytocin synthesis. Viewers will literally bond with the characters and share their emotions, and after the movie ends, they are likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviors of those characters.

Here’s how it works…

The Process of Transformation

“Ben is dying.”

That’s what Ben’s father says to the camera as we see Ben play in the background. Ben is two years old and doesn’t know that a brain tumor will take his life in a matter of months.

Ben’s father tells us how difficult it is to be joyful around Ben because the father knows what is coming. But in the end he resolves to find the strength to be genuinely happy for Ben’s sake, right up to Ben’s last breath.

Everyone can relate to this story. An innocent treated unfairly, and a protector who seeks to right the wrong—but can only do so by finding the courage to change himself and become a better person.

A recent analysis identifies this “hero’s journey” story as the foundation for more than half of the movies that come out of Hollywood, and countless books of fiction and nonfiction. And, if you take a look, this structure is in the majority of the most-watched TED talks.

Why are we so attracted to stories? My lab has spent the last several years seeking to understand why stories can move us to tears, change our attitudes, opinions and behaviors, and even inspire us—and how stories change our brains, often for the better. Here’s what we’ve learned…

Why the brain loves stories

The first part of the answer is that as social creatures who regularly affiliate with strangers, stories are an effective way to transmit important information and values from one individual or community to the next. Stories that are personal and emotionally compelling engage more of the brain, and thus are better remembered, than simply stating a set of facts.

Think of this as the “car accident effect.” You don’t really want to see injured people, but you just have to sneak a peek as you drive by. Brain mechanisms engage saying there might be something valuable for you to learn, since car accidents are rarely seen by most of us but involve an activity we do daily. That is why you feel compelled to rubberneck.

To understand how this works in the brain, we have intensively studied brain response that watching “Ben’s story” produces. We have used this to build a predictive model that explains why after watching the video about half of viewers donate to a childhood cancer charity. We want to know why some people respond to a story while others do not, and how to create highly engaging stories.

We discovered that there are two key aspects to an effective story. First, it must capture and hold our attention. The second thing an effective story does is “transport” us into the characters’ world.

What makes a story effective?

Why do our palms sweat as we watch James Bond fight for his life? Paul Zak is helping find the answer.Why do our palms sweat as we watch James Bond fight for his life? Paul Zak is helping find the answer.

Any Hollywood writer will tell you that attention is a scarce resource. Movies, TV shows, and books always include “hooks” that make you turn the page, stay on the channel through the commercial, or keep you in a theater seat.

Scientists liken attention to a spotlight. We are only able to shine it on a narrow area. If that area seems less interesting than some other area, our attention wanders.

In fact, using one’s attentional spotlight is metabolically costly so we use it sparingly. This is why you can drive on the freeway and talk on the phone or listen to music at the same time.  Your attentional spotlight is dim so you can absorb multiple informational streams. You can do this until the car in front of you jams on its brakes and your attentional spotlight illuminates fully to help you avoid an accident.

From a story-telling perspective, the way to keep an audience’s attention is to continually increase the tension in the story. Ben’s story does this. How will Ben’s father be able to enjoy his son’s last weeks of life? What internal resources will he draw upon to be strong and support his dying son?

We attend to this story because we intuitively understand that we, too, may have to face difficult tasks and we need to learn how to develop our own deep resolve. In the brain, maintaining attention produces signs of arousal: the heart and breathing speed up, stress hormones are released, and our focus is high.

Once a story has sustained our attention long enough, we may begin to emotionally resonate with story’s characters. Narratologists call this “transportation,” and you experience this when your palms sweat as James Bond trades blows with a villain on top of a speeding train.

Transportation is an amazing neural feat. We watch a flickering image that we know is fictional, but evolutionarily old parts of our brain simulate the emotions we intuit James Bond must be feeling. And we begin to feel those emotions, too.

Stories bring brains together

Emotional simulation is the foundation for empathy and is particularly powerful for social creatures like humans because it allows us to rapidly forecast if people around us are angry or kind, dangerous or safe, friend or foe.

Such a neural mechanism keeps us safe but also allows us to rapidly form relationships with a wider set of members of our species than any other animal does. The ability to quickly form relationships allows humans to engage in the kinds of large-scale cooperation that builds massive bridges and sends humans into space. By knowing someone’s story—where they came from, what they do, and who you might know in common—relationships with strangers are formed.

We have identified oxytocin as the neurochemical responsible for empathy and narrative transportation. My lab pioneered the behavioral study of oxytocin and has proven that when the brain synthesizes oxytocin, people are more trustworthy, generous, charitable, and compassionate. I have dubbed oxytocin the “moral molecule,” and others call it the love hormone. What we know is that oxytocin makes us more sensitive to social cues around us. In many situations, social cues motivate us to engage to help others, particularly if the other person seems to need our help.

When people watch Ben’s story in the lab—and they both maintain attention to the story and release oxytocin—nearly all of these individuals donate a portion of their earnings from the experiment. They do this even though they don’t have to.

This is surprising since this payment is to compensate them for an hour of their time and two needle sticks in their arms to obtain blood from which we measure chemical changes that come from their brains.

How we learn through stories

But it turns out that not all stories keep our attention and not all stories transport us into the characters’ worlds.

We ran another experiment that featured Ben and his father at the zoo to find out why. I should mention that Ben was really a boy with cancer who has now died, and the featured father is really his father. In the zoo video, there is no mention of cancer or death, but Ben is bald and his father calls him “miracle boy.” This story had a flat structure, rather than one with rising tension like the previous story. Ben and his father look at a giraffe, Ben skips ahead to look at the rhino, Ben’s father catches up. We don’t know why we are watching Ben and his father, and we are unsure what we are supposed to learn.

People who watched this story began tuning out mid-way through. That is, their scarce attention shifted from the story to scanning the room or thinking about what to buy at the grocery store after the experiment concluded. Measures of physiologic arousal waned and the empathy-transportation response did not occur. These participants also did not offer much in the way of donations to charity.

This evidence supports the view of some narrative theorists that there is a universal story structure. These scholars claim every engaging story has this structure, called the dramatic arc. It starts with something new and surprising, and increases tension with difficulties that the characters must overcome, often because of some failure or crisis in their past, and then leads to a climax where the characters must look deep inside themselves to overcome the looming crisis, and once this transformation occurs, the story resolves itself.

This is another reason why we look at car accidents. Maybe the person who survived did something that saved his or her life. Or maybe the driver made a mistake that ended in injury or death. We need to know this information.

How stories connect us with strangers

We also tested why stories can motivate us, like the characters in them, to look inside ourselves and make changes to become better people.

Those who donated after watching Ben’s story had more empathic concern of other people and were happier than those who did not donate money. This shows there is a virtuous cycle in which we first engage with others emotionally that leads to helping behaviors, that make us happier. Many philosophical and religious traditions advocate caring for strangers, and our research reveals why these traditions continue to influence us today—they resonate with our evolved brain systems that make social interactions rewarding.

The form in which a narrative is told also seems to matter. The narrative theorist Marshall McLuhan famously wrote in the 1960s that “the medium is the message,” and we’ve found this is true neurologically.  The video showing Ben with his father talking on camera is better at both sustaining attention and causing empathic transportation than when people simply read what Ben’s father has to say themselves.  This is good news for Hollywood filmmakers and tells us why we cry at sad movies by cry less often when reading a novel.

Does any of this matter to you?

We’ve recently used the knowledge we’ve developed to test stories that seek to motivate positive behavioral changes. In a recent experiment, participants watched 16 public-service ads from the United Kingdom that were produced by various charities to convince people not to drink and drive, text and drive, or use drugs. We used donations to the featured charities to measure the impact of the ads.

In one version of this experiment, if we gave participants synthetic oxytocin (in the nose, that will reach the brain in an hour), they donated to 57 percent more of the featured charities and donated 56 percent more money than participants given a placebo. Those who received oxytocin also reported more emotional transportation into the world depicted in the ad. Most importantly, these people said they were less likely to engage in the dangerous behaviors shown in the ads.

So, go see a movie and laugh and cry. It’s good for your brain, and just might motivate you to make positive changes in your life and in others’ lives as well.

Paul J. Zak, Ph.D., is the author of The Moral Molecule: How Trust Works, and Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

See also:

What’s the Story with “Story?” by James K. A. Smith, PhD

Hollywood and Higher Education: Teaching Worldview Through the Stories Students Live By, by Gary David Stratton, PhD

 

What’s the Story with “Story?” by James K. A. Smith, PhD

We need to sort out the different sorts of claims that are made about and for “story” in these discussions 

Jonathan Gottschall seems to claim that “Story” makes us empathetic.  In reply, Jacobs effectively asks: “Really?  Does the story embedded in Grand Theft Auto do that?”

by James K. A. Smith, PhD • Professor of Philosophy, Calvin College

“Story” seems to be the new black.  Or the new magic.  Or maybe the new black magic.

Our attraction to story  points to the unique formative power of narrative for good or ill.
Human attraction to story points to the unique formative power of narrative for good… or ill.

This is Alan Jacobs’ concern in his recent Books & Culture essay, “Just-So Stories.”  His primary target is the “just-so” stories about “story” that are now the darling of “evocriticism”–those (allegedly scientific) accounts that “explain” the power of “story” by explaining them away in terms of reproductive fitness and evolutionary adaptation.  According to these sorts of just-so stories,”story” is important because it teaches us empathy, or trains us to have a theory of other minds, or equips us to be able to make predictions–all of which enable members of the species to avoid getting killed and thus find the time to reproduce.  Jacobs’ rightly targets and questions such accounts.  (I would also recommend Jonathan Kramnick’s essay, “Against Literary Darwinism,” as well as the follow-up symposium in Critical Inquiry.)

But Jacobs’ argument gets a little fuzzier when he turns his critical attention to those Christians who have turned “story” into a bit of a cottage industry.  (And I suppose I felt myself a bit of a target here, given the centrality of story for my argument about “how worship works” in Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works.)  So I’d like to extend the conversation a bit, on just this point, precisely because I think Jacobs raises important questions and advances the conversation.

A little set-up: Jacobs’ criticizes Gottschall’s Storytelling Animal for treating “Story” as an identifiable abstraction; that is, Gottschall “too readily assumes that there is some general thing called Story, rather than considering the implications of the fact that there are many different kinds of stories.”  So Gottschall seems to claim that “Story” makes us empathetic.  In reply, Jacobs effectively asks: “Really?  Does the story embedded in Grand Theft Auto do that?”

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