Story Telling – The Scientific Basis

Several things define human beings for what they are: self awareness, the ability to visualise the future, selfless sacrifice, and story. There is something fundamentally human about the need to tell, hear, and participate in stories.

Even something as simple as gossip has an underlying structure: a beginning, a middle and an end, dialogue, a hero and a villain, participation, and the perceived distinction between right and wrong.

“And can you believe what she did next …”

“No – the cheek of it.”

“Well, I wasn’t going to stand for that so I said …”

In fact, the human brain seems hard wired to prefer narratives. Given a list of hard facts and an intriguing but iffy story, we will always prefer the story. This is why there are so many urban myths, and why gossip thrives – we have an insatiable appetite for stories.

Our affinity for narrative over facts could even be the defining characteristic of the human species (how would an alien species without this ability act/think). Somewhere in out past, narratives provided an evolutionary advantage over the processing of pure facts. Now we are stuck with it.
Even in the most complex and extreme circumstances, such as the credit crunch of 2007/8, which took us completely by surprise, we cannot help but construct a simple narrative to explain what happened. Regardless, that as a race, we could didn’t see it coming.  Never-the-less, we construct a narrative, which had we known the story before the event, would have made the danger obvious to everyone.

I’m reminded of how a primitive tribe on an isolated island survived the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, without a single loss of life, despite their entire village being washed away. They had a story, which had been passed down through the generations, a legend or myth we would call it. This story basically said that when the sea god gets so angry he sucks all the water from the sea, run like hell for the hills.
Someone saw the sea being sucked backwards by the approaching tsunami, remembered the story, warned the village, and everyone acted on it: they ran for the hills. Their survival depended not on knowing the facts or mechanics of tsunamis, but on remembering a vague story hundreds of ears old. Canadian Indians have a similar story, about the sky god spreading his wings and holding back the sea, leading researchers to suspect a tsunami may have hit Canada sometime in the dim and distant past.

This affinity for stories is great news for us story tellers, because it means stories will never go out of fashion. There will always be a market for a well told intriguing stories, because that’s the way humans are built.

But what exactly is it that stories do for us? Are they a survival mechanism in their own right? Or a spin off from some other survival mechanism?

MRI scans reveal that our brains fire off in exactly the same regions for stories as they do for real life, especially in the pleasure, reward, and well being zones. Reading a good story actually produces dopamine and serotonin in the brain in the same way that a real life event does. Scientists trying to coax the brain into artificially producing dopamine and serotonin have discovered that one technique is better than all the rest: get the subject involved in a good narrative – a book or a film.

Not only do we imagine ourselves in the story situation, but chemically, for a while, we actually become the character and feel what they feel, and care about the characters as if they are real people. Even more intriguingly, the brain activity of a person listening to a story becomes aligned with the brain activity of the person telling the story – that’s you, the author.

You know that feeling when you finish a book and wish it would go on forever, well, there’s even a theory for that: this release of dopamine and serotonin is addictive, so readers crave again the same brain experience they have just had. Which is why readers follow the same authors and characters – they don’t just like your stories, they are addicted the high it gives them.

Why is the human race addicted to stories? There is no agreement on that yet, just wildly differing theories, so that’s for the scientist to go figure. In the mean time, we authors can make use of the findings to improve our story telling.
The key to all these chemical reactions appears to be emotional empathy. If you write a good emotional scene, which to the reader feels like real life, it actually becomes real life for that reader.

For an author, the next questions are obvious: who chemically engages people the best?  Whose work should we study to make ours better?  Unfortunately, the limited amount of research conducted in this area focuses only on film directors, where the master: Alfred Hitchcock, really is the master.

Well I’m off to get a shot of serotonin by watching a Hitchcock film so I can learn how to better addict my readers.

Nick

Sources: New Scientist, vol 209, No 2799


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