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new research on how fiction affects the brain

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Post by annis » Wed March 21st, 2012, 7:12 am

Posted by Justin Swanton
The story is something different. Why do children beg their parents to tell them a story? Why do we need stories so much? Don't scientific or philosophical explanations suffice to interpret reality? I have some ideas on the subject but I'd like to hear what others think
“Day to day, minute to minute, second to second the surface of our lives is in a perpetual ripple of change. Below the immediate surface are slower, deeper currents, and below these again are profound mysterious movements beyond the scale of the individual life-span. And far down on the sea-bed are the oldest, most lasting things, whose changes our imagination can hardly grasp at all.”
John Rowe Townsend, A Sense of Story.

Stories work at the deepest level of consciousness, of archetype, below the level of rational thought. As this study confirms, stories actually shape us. (It's no coincidence that the Anglo-Saxon word for a bard/storyteller was scop, which means "a shaper"). Stories are one of the oldest techniques used by humankind to establish a sense of place in an ongoing chain of humanity with a past and a future, and with the natural world - a tool for bonding and cultural validation, as the earliest storytellers knew. They’re a way of handing on past knowledge and experience in a palatable form, helping children deal with situations outside their control and the best (and hopefully morally soundest) ways of responding to others. They're vital in helping children relate to family and wider society. Through them they learn language, the most essential tool for communication and stimulating brain development, and of course, in the past the oral tradition was the only way of passing on family/clan history and legends. However infuriating it may be for a parent, children love stories that they have heard many times already- knowing the story in advance makes the child part of it and reaffirms his/her place in the world.

It's not surprising that as we grow older we relate to coming of age stories - one reason why teenagers enjoy fantasy and adventure novels is that the stories generally follow the model of the hero's quest, which is a metaphor for the journey through life. In more primitive times, it was natural for storytellers to add drama to the hero’s story with supernatural beings and gods to explain a world full of unknown phenomena, and despite advanced understanding and technology, magic has become entwined in our cultural memory- we feel that there should be magic, and still love it in our stories.

Above all, stories are comforting - they show us we’re not alone, that we all experience to greater or lesser degrees the same joys and sorrows, fears and anxieties. At the same time, reading about other people we can relate to, even though fictional, takes us out of our own not always happy lives temporarily and allows us to experience other times, places and cultures, romance and adventure, things that we may not experience in real life. This is why we never outgrow the longing for a good story and why we all subconsciously prefer a story with a (relatively) happy ending :) Though of course some of the greatest stories are tragedies- like Margaret's Romeo and Juliet., and we find them profoundly affecting.

Although "“Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life…." , this understanding is nothing new - Plato and Aristotle attempted to put it into words in their discussions about the concepts of mimesis and catharthis.
Last edited by annis on Wed March 21st, 2012, 7:16 pm, edited 17 times in total.

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Justin Swanton
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Location: Durban, South Africa

Post by Justin Swanton » Fri March 23rd, 2012, 8:28 pm

MLE and Annis, reading your posts reminded me of G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy - specifically The Ethics of Elfland, from which one can deduce up several fundamental elements that run through all classic stories (it is true that G.K. was talking about children's fairy stories but what he says applies to stories in general).

Briefly, they are:

- a sense of surprise: looking at the world with fresh eyes, taking nothing for granted;

- a spirit of adventure, which means getting out of a rut and using one's abilities in situations that may involve personal loss or danger;

- a conditional happiness, that depends upon doing or not doing something.

Thinking over these three elements, I would pinpoint our natural need for stories on our perception of the nature of happiness. A very young child does not understand or need stories as his sense of happiness comes from his immediate perceptions: the sound of a tinkling bell, the colour of a rubber duck, the movement of a kitten playing on the carpet. It is all at a basic level: learning to use his faculties, absorbing the world around him.

As the child gets older, his perceptions broaden. He begins to grasp the fundamental notion that time goes somewhere definite: deeds have consequences, and happiness becomes a goal, to be attained or lost. In his everyday life this is borne out in little ways; but it is the story that paints it on a grand canvas.

This may seem like stating the obvious, but there are several corollaries to this bond between happiness and time. The first is that happiness, or rather the circumstances that make for happiness, must be achieved. Staying put sucking one's thumb does not lead to it.

The second is the conditional component, which lies in the perception that there are true and bogus sources of human felicity, and one has to make the right choice between them. Once the choice is made, the consequences follow.

The third is uncertainty. The hero is not guaranteed success, or rather, he will succeed if he keeps to the path, but the path is one he can quite easily stray from. Time means change, inconstancy, the difficulty of sticking at anything for any long period. Pilgrim's Progress I think epitomizes this characteristic.

All these things are at the heart of a good story, and I believe a six-year-old understands them instinctively. Adults are no different from children in this regard, and love (and need) a good story for the same reasons.
Last edited by Justin Swanton on Sat March 24th, 2012, 6:58 am, edited 1 time in total.
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