Updated: Apr 19
What a bizarre time to be alive. It's hard to wrap our heads around how interconnected our whole world is sometimes. I know I struggle with it even as I work with people who live all over the globe. But this Covid-19 mess has really made it clear what a major impact we can and do have on each other all over this planet. These kinds of things are supposed to be relegated to science fiction, thrillers, dystopian, and disaster stories, right?
I have heard some people express that as things have escalated with the coronavirus pandemic that this feels like a movie or something. And I totally get it.
And yet, what if it's really the other way around?
What if the reason events today might feel reminiscent of movies like Contagion or Outbreak is because, in reality, those movies--in fact, all effective stories--feel like life. We turn to stories because they simultaneously are compellingly real and safely fictional. Just as it does with dreams and nightmares, our brains need to run fire drills to help us survive and thrive the endless curve balls life throws at us. Fictional narratives fill this same function for our brains.
In fact, this happens because of a beautiful conspiracy between our brains and storytellers. Storytellers take the time to design for us a compelling simulation of people navigating challenges, adversity, and the darkest of times. As Lisa Cron points out, when our brains recognize this simulation, brought to us in the form of narrative, it actively shuts off that super analytical part of our brain that would otherwise constantly be saying, "yeah, but this isn't real and that character is not a real person." Instead, thanks to mechanisms in our brains like mirror neurons, empathy pulls us in and we put ourselves in the shoes of the characters. We experience the story as if it is happening to us. We hang on for dear life because our brains are desperate to find out if there is valuable information in the narrative that might help us someday navigate a similar situation.
Your brain cares about one thing, your ability to thrive. First, it must always ensure your survival. Then, it seeks out ways you can thrive in your environment. But you can't thrive without surviving! At the heart of this is the fact that our brains are keenly adapted to be sensitive to adversity, challenges, and problems. This encompasses everything from being eaten by some wild animal to breaking social bonds that might leave us isolated and vulnerable. This is why every story is built on conflict. That is actually what our brains are designed to latch on to. Storytellers didn't create this need, they just discovered how to tap into it.
So why are some stories more compelling than others?
Our brains consume a disproportionate amount of calories for the amount of body mass they occupy. Because of this, our brains are not interested in burning calories gathering inconsequential information. This is why when someone starts telling you about their day of running mundane chores you just can't seem to find it in you to stay focused on what they are telling you. Unless their story takes a sudden turn like, "and that's when the car crash happened right in front of me," your brain is just going to default to conserving calories. There's nothing going on in this bland narrative that seems likely to help you survive or thrives so no need to burn precious calories on following along.
A few years ago, a non-storyteller friend speculated about the possibilities of being able to tell stories without conflict. It was a sincere thought shared by someone without an intimate knowledge of storytelling. I think at the time I tried to explain that stories just don't work that way. They need conflict to be anything other than a forgettable non-anecdote.
Today, I would actually correct my statement and try to express that it's not so much that stories don't work that way, it's that our brains don't work that way. After all, you could feasibly create a narrative following Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey structure and have the character face no real adversity and breeze right through every step of the process like it's nothing. But there is simply no compelling reason for our brains to invest energy in focusing and empathizing with a narrative that presents no conflict or obstacles to be overcome because there are no lessons to be learned that might help us in similar situations.
It's like our brains see a story like that and they just shrug and move on because we all know our lives will never go that smoothly. So how could this conflictless meandering be of any assistance to us?
Think of it this way, sitting through such a conflictless narrative would be much like sitting through a basic class of a subject you mastered years ago and only casually use today. Everything is familiar, the information has little impact on your life today, and you are unlikely to hear anything that will help you navigate future uncertainty or challenges. You're going to have a really hard time not tuning out and daydreaming or just plain falling asleep. You are going to need some novel information that your brain suspects might help you survive and thrive if you are going to keep from drooling on your notebook.
What does this have to do with our current crisis?
Well, here we are, in an all too real pandemic. First of all, if you find yourself thinking, "Man this feels like a movie," don't feel guilty. Honestly, it's sort of supposed to feel like a story. Your brain is just saying, "Hey, I think I recognize this situation."
Secondly, let's take the best lessons from such stories. Let's be like the noblest characters in those movies and look out for our neighbors, keep our cool in the face of crisis and uncertainty, and keep moving forward even as we face dark times that may feel like our own story low points. Remember, those really low points come just before the climax of the story. And I'm willing to bet that the reason our brains love that particular structure is that it helps us prepare our hearts to keep our heads up and our courage flowing when life inevitably hits some very dark moments.
Right now, we need to use caution, wisdom, and a healthy dose of physical isolation or distancing to prevent the rapid spread of the virus and the overwhelming of our medical infrastructure. And why this can completely throw some of us out of our normal habits and feel rather strange that we are stuck at home or while others are out there heroically confronting this issue because they work in the medical field or other key political and social areas, we are all presented with an opportunity to be heroic in our efforts to slow the spread of this pandemic. Social distancing and self-isolation are acts of love and heroism and will literally save lives. Let's do this together.
Please be safely heroic out there.
Socially Distantly Yours,