Please contact E. B. Davis at email@example.com for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for August: (8/3) Dianne Freeman (8/10) Daryl Wood Gerber (8/17) E. B. Davis's Review of Granite Oath, James M. Jackson's new novel (8/24) Rose Kerr (8/31) V. M. Burns.
Tuesday, February 23, 2016
The Science of Story
I am a writer; therefore, I am a collector of stories. I pick them up the way that magpies pluck trinkets from the side of the road. They are seashells on the beach, haphazard treasures left behind by the outgoing tide. They are rivers running from the highlands to the silty deltas. And they are everywhere.
This is because stories are organic. They are as natural and dynamic and symbiotic as the redwood forest. Like all creatures, they have lives of their own, and there's a lot to be gained by viewing them through the lens of biology and anthropology and neurology. Don't believe me? Here are some interesting tidbits about the science of storytelling that I hope will convince you.
1. Stories have DNA. Durham University anthropologist Dr. Jamie Tehrani recently analyzed fairy tales – you know, those popularized by the Brothers Grimm – using techniques borrowed from evolutionary biology. The study employed phylogenetic comparative methods (don't ask me what that means) to investigate the connections between populations and their cultural phenomena, isolating key elements and exploring those "genetic" roots. They discovered that these stories were born 4,000 to 6,000 years ago, some going as far back as the Bronze Age: You can read more about the study at BBC News.
2. Stories rewire the human brain. Psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano have demonstrated that reading literary fiction – stories of some depth and complexity that they dubbed "writerly" – enhances a person's ability to detect and understand the emotions of others. And what is more, this empathetic effect lingers long after the subjects finish reading. In other words, simply reading certain types of fiction – and the authors have been insistent that this could include genre fiction, such as mysteries – creates real world, measurable effects in the human brain. You can read more about this in The Guardian.
3. Reality is really just a story with different authors. Cops have known this for quite some time – eyewitness testimony is one of the least reliable pieces of evidence. That's because even though we have this idea that the brain makes careful distinctions between reality and fiction, and that anyone who mixes up the two is either lying or delusional, the truth is much more interesting…and subjective.
It seems that the memory-making part of our brain is entangled with the story-making part of our brain. As Jonathan Gottschall explains in The Storymaking Animal, once we start delving into memories, we find that they're substantially fictionalized: "Some of the most confident memories that are residing in our brain just didn’t happen the way we think they happened," Gottschall explains. In other words, we're all editing the plot of our lives in ways both big and small, every day. You can read more about Gottschall's work in this PBS interview
So there you have it – weirdness at the intersection of science and art. What about you? Told any good stories lately?