Monday, June 02, 2014

How Stories Work – Everything Old is New Again

A few months ago, I heard a story on NPR about a study that found reading literary fiction, rather than popular fiction, could help people be more empathetic. I have no doubt that this could be true. But I did take issue with ending the story there.
The story seemed to conclude that because literary fiction had the effect of making folks more empathetic it was better than popular fiction. Now, I just don’t believe in the idea of one genre being better than another. I do not believe in story hierarchy. There are well-told stories and there are poorly told stories, that’s it. And empathy is just one thing we can learn from them.
Stories work because of something called theory of mind, which is our ability to put ourselves in the minds of others—real or fictional. A lot of that has to do with this: When we read about, or watch, someone doing something, neurons in our brains fire so that our brain can imagine this activity or event is happening to us. When a person runs, for instance, motor neurons are activated in their brain. The same parts of the brain activate when we simply watch someone run.
If I write, the cool breeze blew gently over my skin causing goose bumps, you can feel that. You are predisposed to feel it; it is the only way to understand what I was feeling.

Literary fiction is all about the subjective experience, getting in the minds and experiencing the feelings of the characters, so it only makes sense that having these areas of one’s brain stimulated would have an effect. But again, as far as I know, the researchers only tested for empathy.
I suspect that if they had had subjects read mystery novels and then tested their memory and puzzle-solving skills they might have seen an improved ability to perform those types of tasks. There are all types of things one can learn from stories; empathy is just one.
For example, what prompted me to finally write about this is a more recent study about how having couples watch and discuss romantic movies is as effective in lowering divorce rates as marriage counseling.
This only makes sense. This is ancient wisdom that modern science is now catching us with. In Ayurvedic medicine, a more-than-3,000-year-old form of medicine from India, using stories is part of the practice. A patient is told a story and instructed to contemplate the hero’s plight. Sounds a lot like the romantic movie study, doesn’t it?

Humans seem to be hardwired not just for enjoying stories, but for imitating and learning from them. People have known this for just about as long as people have been telling stories. And there are many things to be learned from them—empathy being a very important one. But if ever find yourself lost in the woods, cold and hungry, you might find the story you read about someone surviving in the woods more valuable than any piece of highfalutin’ literary fiction.