Updated: Apr 13, 2019
Did you know your favorite stories might save your life?
In the introduction of her book, Wired for Story, Lisa Cron writes, "Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience reveal that our brain is hardwired to respond to story; the pleasure we derive from a tale well told is nature's way of seducing us into paying attention to it." Cron points out that "we're wired to turn to story to teach us the way of the world."
So what do stories teach us?
1. Stories Help Us Prepare
In the first chapter of Wired for Story, Cron lays out a very compelling argument for how our brain's prime directive is survival. Our subconscious is always hard at work trying to amass more information that will help us survive in a variety of situations. Narrative storytelling is a great way for this to happen. It makes sense on a couple of levels. Through a story we can safely experience danger without actually being in danger and vicariously live through characters, taking note of how they succeed or fail. There is also a powerful parallel between storytelling and dreaming. Dreams are the stories our subconscious minds tell us at night as it works to make sense of new, traumatic, impactful, or complex experiences.
What Lisa Cron argues is that our brains make sure that we enjoy stories because there's likely to be information contained in such stories that can help us figure out how to survive similar situations. Of course, your brain knows that you're not actually James Bond or Wonder Woman, but that doesn't stop it from empathizing with such characters and soaking in information that might prove useful should you find yourself in a life-or-death situation (which is why your brain wants you to pay attention to stories in the first place).
It should not be a surprise then that storytelling has been a pervasive part of human cultures for our entire existence. We love stories in part because of our need to assimilate potentially life-saving information. But stories don't just help us with figuring out how best to escape a tiger attack or earthquake. Even seemingly mundane information about the world we live in can be quite helpful.
We are social beings, and our survival is greatly predicated on our ability to function in social groups and procreate. This is why stories about relationships and connection to community matter to us just as much as (if not more than) stories of surviving a shark attack or foiling the plans of would be fictional terrorists. Neuroscientist and author, David Eagleman argues that "to the brain social rejection is so meaningful that it hurts, literally." So, your secret love for soap operas likely finds its origin in this primal need of your brain.
2. Stories Help Us Make Sense of Life
In his book, The Brain: The Story of You, David Eagleman writes, "We can’t help but impose stories. From time immemorial, people have watched the flights of birds, the movement of the stars, the swaying of trees, and invented stories about them, interpreting them as having intention." Eagleman argues that the very nature of how our brains work requires a narrative of sorts as we take the many diverse parts of our nervous system and the massive amount of information constantly bombarding it and forge out of a that a unified sense of our singular self. "Although you have a single identity," Eagleman writes, "you’re not of a single mind: instead, you are a collection of many competing drives."
We need a sense of flow and purpose for reality within ourselves, and we'd also like to see that present in the world around us. So there's a natural desire to interpret the world through a narrative lens. That's not to say that there isn't validity to this narrative lens. But I do think it is worth acknowledging that have natural narrative bias built into how our minds work.
This narrative bias means that stories stand out as particularly attractive ways for us to interact with and make sense of the world. While the world around us can seem confusing at times, narratives focus our attention on causally connected interpretations of reality. They also present miniature versions the world we live in, as I've written out in a previous post.
3. Experience, Absorb, Repeat
In her book, How to Survive Change ... You Didn't Ask For, M. J. Ryan writes, "I once read that the average brain generalizes from an example of one, which any good scientist would tell you is not a big enough data pool from which to be drawing useful conclusions." She's right. I've observed this in myself and people I know. It's easy to take one experience, especially if it stands out as particularly significant, and draw broad sweeping conclusions.
Maybe this is one reason why we're also drawn to experiencing stories repeatedly. It's not enough to just read one book or see one movie. We keep reading more book, seeing more movies, watching more episodes or our favorite shows. If we naturally tend to make generalizations from very limited experiences, as Ryan suggests, then our continued experiences of many stories is a good thing.
This variety of stories helps our brains to compile a broader narrative pool to draw from. Could you imagine if we read Romeo and Juliet at a young age and assumed this one narrative represented how all romantic relationships work out (assuming Shakespeare wasn't actually being sarcastic, which I think he was--but that's a blog post for different day) and then never experienced another story about relationships? Yikes!
4. Stories Can Shift Our Negative Perspective
If you find that you're drawn to feel-good stories or comedies, I think there might be a good reason for this too. In an article for Inquiring Mind, Rick Mendius points out the following:
"The brain is hard-wired to scan for the bad, and when it inevitably finds negative things, they get stored immediately and made available for rapid recall. In contrast, positive experiences (short of million dollar moments) are usually registered through standard memory systems, and thus need to be held in conscious awareness for ten to twenty second for them to really sink in. In sum, your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones ... this built-in bias puts a negative spin on the world and intensifies our stress and reactivity."
Yup, we have a negative bias when it comes to how we look at the world. Our brains are working hard to ensure our survival, but sometimes this can backfire. We easily soak in and focus on negative information. It takes conscious effort to focus on the good things in life. So wanting to experience stories that remind us of how good life can be, or that there is "some good in this world, and it's worth fighting for," as Sam Gamgee says to Frodo in The Two Towers, seems like one way in which we might be able to counteract our brain's natural propensity to focus our attention on everything that's wrong with the world.
Sometimes we need to experience negative things in a safe space, and narratives are useful for this too. At other times, however, it can be a refreshing break from the troubles of this life to experience something that helps us focus on what's positive and good about our reality. This "escapism" can be a valuable break that allows us to come back to our current challenges with a better and more well-rounded perspective that hopefully doesn't ascribe more weight to our negative experiences than is reasonable.
The next time you find you need a break from life and want to curl up with a good book or you feel compelled to dash off to the movies, keep in mind that there's likely more going on in your brain than just a craving for escapist recreation. As I've pointed out in the past, the stories we gravitate toward say a lot about who we are. The kinds of stories we find ourselves turning to most often can reveal to us a lot about how we see ourselves and the world, as I've written about in the past. It's worth keeping in mind that our brains are constantly working in unseen ways to assimilate information to help us stay alive and thrive.