this is your brain on fiction
Most aspiring fiction writers don’t read enough fiction, which is like a fighter going into the ring with one hand tied behind her back. The game is over before it started. I’ve written about this before – Reading is the Inhale, Writing is the Exhale: Developing Writer’s Intuition – and posted about it in various places and forums over the years, and I always encounter resistance (generally from aspiring fiction writers who don’t read enough).
But this isn’t surprising, since the culture itself delivers deeply mixed messages about the importance of fiction. Parents tell their kids to read books, because we all know that reading is good for you, and makes you smarter, but when the kids look to the parents to see what the parents are doing, they are…generally not reading novels. (They might even be trying to ban the novels that they’re not actually reading.)
Part of this has to do with the way reading is taught in schools, which often works to destroy the very pleasure principle that drives us to do what we do. Studies have shown that extrinsic motivation (offering someone a reward, such as a prize or a good grade) tends to destroy intrinsic motivation (the desire to do the activity simply for the sake of doing the activity), which worsens performance instead of improving it.
And part of this has to do with the fact that the culture doesn’t really understand the point of reading fiction. We prize efficiency, productivity, quantitative results, and ‘being busy’. Fiction seems too self-indulgent, so we tend to say, I just don’t have the time for it. (We do, however, have the time to watch hours of television a day, or go shopping, or aimlessly surf the Web, but whatever.)
We tend to say: I like to read books that actually teach me something.
Because in the end, what does fiction actually do for us? What’s the ROI? It’s not like it actually teaches us anything, or improves our lives in some measurable way…right?
The irony is that we are hardwired for narrative. We consume stories. We hunger for them, we gobble them up, we look for more. Television shows were invented solely to keep enough of us in one place long enough so that advertisers could sell us stuff that we don’t need and were doing fine without. Stories can be scripted – like LOST – or unscripted – like THE BACHELOR, or when Brad dumped Jennifer for Angelina, it doesn’t matter.
The brain is a funny thing. It doesn’t always distinguish between reality and the simulation of a reality. On some level, the brain doesn’t even distinguish between your friends and your favorite imaginary characters. (This might be why, when the 1980s show FAME killed off Nicole, I broke down and bawled like a baby. I was maybe twelve or thirteen at the time. This might also be why, in Victorian times, crowds swarmed the docks when the boats came in carrying the latest edition of Charles Dickens’ serial novel. They cried out, “Is Nell dead?” and when the answer came back ‘yes’, there was weeping and hysteria.)
In fact, when you read about a character performing an action, your brain responds as if you were performing that action yourself. In so doing, your brain absorbs that experience as if it were your own and files it away in that repository of knowledge it can draw on in the future.
There is a survival benefit to this.
Say I’m a caveman, and you’re a caveman, and you come back to the cave one day saying, Dude! I ran into this huge hulking beast with teeth that are like THIS BIG and it seriously tried to eat my head, and I had to run up into a tree and hide until it went away and I needed to piss like a racehorse. Maybe I’ve never seen such a creature before, or even known that it existed, but by absorbing your story I absorb your experience and thus enlarge the field of my own. The next time I leave the cave, I know to keep my eyes peeled for the huge hulking beast, and to hide in a tree if it attacks me.
Even our fascination with celebrities – the stories of their lives – can be traced to evolutionary advantage. Humans are social animals, and it seems to be the way of things for the less powerful to study the powerful, and for the powerful to ignore everybody but their peers. By studying those who influence and rule us, we could figure out how to navigate their routines and personalities so that we could, maybe, poach a mate or steal some food or copy their tactics or in some way advance our own situation.
Narrative organizes information and allows us to remember it. It’s also through narrative that we impart meaning and value to events. In this way we do more than tell stories; we co-create the very reality that we live in. As any number of self-help books will tell you, if you want to change your life, you have to change yourself, and if you want to change the way you see yourself, you need to change the story that you tell yourself about yourself. Either your story empowers you – or it dooms you (a.k.a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’).
We can not only use stories to transform ourselves, but to change others: to impact the way they see the world, to alter their own co-created reality.
Because here’s the thing. We are not the rational creatures we would like to think of ourselves as being. If we made rational decisions for rational reasons, Americans wouldn’t be nearly so overweight, addicted, or in debt as we are (and we are more these things than we’ve ever been in history). Our neocortex – that top layer of brain that enables self-awareness – is a relatively recent development. Our limbic brain (the middle, mammalian brain that runs on emotion) is much older and our reptilian brain (the bottom, primitive brain that runs on instinct) is older still. They’ve had a lot more time to figure out how to get what they want, which means our so-called ‘rational’ brain often gets co-opted, manipulated and overruled.
So in order to truly get through to another person, you have to enlist their emotional as well as their rational brain.
You have to charge your argument, your ideas, with emotion.
What better way to do this than through stories?
— to be continued —
image by Sophie Phelps