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The Science of Story

I came across this video from the World Science Festival called, Why We Tell Stories: Science of Narrative. In searching the web for books and articles about stories and storytelling from a scientific angle, I’ve found a handful of accessible books about the subject, the best so far being The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall, which I’ve mentioned before. I’m sure there are other, more academic style books on the subject, but I am far from an academic, so those types of books don’t resonate with me.

But as the panelists discuss, the scientific study into narrative is a relatively new field. Philosophers and writers have pondered the question for centuries, but only in the last 15 years or so has it been studied with any scientific rigor. Which makes sense why it’s been hard to come by a lot of information on the topic.

The video is definitely worth watching. (The panel starts about 15 minutes in.)

The panel didn’t come to any definitive conclusions, but I came away with a lot of great insights.

–Research suggests that story has the ability to change us. This is a powerful idea which we can see play out in places like advertising and politics. We can be swayed to buy a particular product or vote for a particular person based on the story the advertiser or politician tells us.

–Fiction helps us to create better mental models of each other. This helps us empathize with others more easily. Researchers discovered that parts of the brain that are activated for understanding someone are also activated by story. With fiction, unlike in real life, we can understand why a character behaves a certain way (even if we don’t condone it) because we are aware of his or her inner thoughts and deepest secrets.

–Humans are designed to find meaning. Stories can help us find meaning in what seems at times to be a meaningless world.

–Stories are the social glue that holds a tribe or society together.

–Stories are simulations of the social world. Keith Oatley describes stories like they are flight simulators or virtual realities, where we can test out different social situations without the social risks.

All these ideas have me really excited about the possibility of stories and what they are capable of. They truly have the ability to make us the best versions of ourselves and to inspire us to be a positive influence on the world. For me, after reading a great book or watching a great movie, I’m inspired to create. And I’ve heard from a lot of Avatar fans who have told me some amazing and heartwarming tales of how the series and characters have touched people and inspired them to study art or deal with illness or cope with the loss of a loved one. Your stories inspire me to keep telling more.

I love that scientists are studying story, but I wonder if treating story like it’s bacteria in a petri dish will take away some of its magic. Will there be a point where we understand its effects on the human brain so well that people can tailor stories to resonate with people? I suppose, but this would be the same as propaganda.

I recently heard a definition of art that I really liked – it must be both novel and useful. And I think that can apply to story as well. Science can probably help us make it more useful, but I don’t know that it can ever explain why some stories become great and others don’t. There are so many factors that go into telling a story, that you can have all the ingredients right, and still come out with a half-baked product.

At the end of the talk, the moderator asked what the future of story will look like. And although stories might take different forms or be consumed in different ways, the kinds of stories we tell won’t change all that much, according to Gottschall. I agree. Old stories like The Iliad and Hercules are still being retold, just in modern media. But the essence of these stories still reflect the values we find important, like courage, overcoming fear, love, and justice.

Do you think scientific study of story will have useful results? Have there been any stories that have changed you?

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