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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?


KM Rockwood said...

Your raise some very interesting points.

One of my concerns with present-day TV and video games is whether the developing brains of our children are able to process the scenes of murder and mayhem differently than they do reality. Does it make our young people feel, on a very intrinsic level, that this is normal, acceptable behaviour?

We've been processing stories by listening, and in the last few centuries, reading them, and our brains seem to be able to distinquish them from reality. When we add the visual, is that over the top?

Warren Bull said...

It is easy to evoke a "false memory." I was part of an experiment once when a psychologist evoked one in me. "Flash Bulb" memories, i.e. brief intense memories, are no more accurate than longer memories.

Gloria Alden said...

Very interesting blog, Tina. I remember the stories told me about my parents, their parents and other ancestors. Like KM, I wonder if today's children get the same message. does the rise in mass shootings come from what they watch? Does the lack of reading books keep them from understanding and caring about people?

As for me, I started making up and telling stories to my younger brother when we were quite young. My parents were readers and all my siblings and I grew up as readers and still are.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

It seems that the new norm is graphic violence, on screen and in real life.

I'm interested in false and selective memories. Do I remember incidents from my children's childhoods differently than they do? We all tend to embellish favorite family stories, but I vividly recall certain incidents that the kids deny ever happened.

Great overview.

Shari Randall said...

Absolutely fascinating. How interesting that humans have been passing on the same stories, over and over, through time. I believe that culture is passed through these childhood stories much in the way that music and food also carry the essence of a people. Sad when these stories are lost.

Kait said...

One of. my favorite games as a child was telephone. I guess it's fallen from favor these days, but it was an early introduction to the way witness testimony varies. When I was taking psy classes in school, they taught us that if a story remains the same over many tellings, it's either a false memory, or the story has been embellished. The same telling is the tell because we remember more of what we create than what we experience. I've often wondered if that is true.

Jim Jackson said...

And this is one of the reasons someone who has told a lie long enough comes to thoroughly believe it and is outraged when contradicted or not believed.

~ Jim

Tina said...

One of the things I've learned -- our brains are story-making machines. The brain craves a story, will try to make a story out of random facts. And because of this propensity, we can be manipulated for good or ill. We can be primed to give false witness or remember more clearly. We can be primed to be empathetic or completely disconnected from our emotions. And the whole time, the brain fools us into thinking our free will is in charge, not it.

Thank for you all for commenting so smartly.