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Book and Media Reviews
March 22/29, 2006


Author Affiliations

Book and Media Reviews Section Editor: Harriet S. Meyer, MD, Contributing Editor, JAMA.

JAMA. 2006;295(12):1453-1458. doi:10.1001/jama.295.12.1457

Why should doctors care about storytelling? For starters, most physicians spend a goodly portion of their day listening to patients and sometimes struggling to cobble their rambling remarks into a coherent narrative. But The Literary Animal, an anthology of essays by scholars in the new field of evolutionary literary criticism, suggests that there may be more to narrative than simple information exchange.

Evolutionary psychologists have long puzzled over why our species has devoted such energy to storytelling and art, activities that from an evolutionary perspective seem at best frivolous, at worst wasteful of precious time and resources. One school of thought holds that our brains have evolved to appreciate informational complexity, just as our palates have evolved with a taste for sugar and fat; perhaps literature and art are therefore just cheesecake for the mind. Perhaps the imaginative stimulus of narrative is educational and helps us develop problem-solving skills. Perhaps early humans with rich and resonant cultures were more cohesive and better able to withstand the challenges of conflict and scarcity. Or, perhaps most important from a medical perspective, storytelling may have a therapeutic function, enabling us to cope with the grief, loss, and dislocation of existence.

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