14 February 2011

The Scientific Basis For Story

Language, religion, music, and stories are common to all human cultures. Stories, therefore, must be fundamental the human nature.

But what exactly is it that stories do for us? Are they a survival mechanism in their own right? Or a spin off from some other survival mechanism?

MRI scans reveal that our brains fire off in exactly the same regions for stories as they do for real life, especially in the pleasure, reward, and well being zones. Reading a good story actually produces dopamine and serotonin in the brain in the same way that a real life event does. Scientists trying to coax the brain into artificially producing dopamine and serotonin have discovered that one technique is better than all the rest: get the subject involved in a good narrative - a book or a film.

Not only do we imagine ourselves in the story situation, but chemically, for a while, we actually become the character and feel what they feel, and care about the characters as if they are real people. Even more intriguingly, the brain activity of a person listening to a story becomes aligned with the brain activity of the person telling the story – that’s you, the author.

You know that feeling when you finish a book and wish it would go on forever, well, there’s even a theory for that: this release of dopamine and serotonin is addictive, so readers crave again the same brain experience they have just had. Which is why readers follow the same authors and characters – they don’t just like your stories, they are addicted the high it gives them.

Why is the human race addicted to stories? There is no agreement on that yet, just wildly differing theories, so that’s for the scientist to go figure. In the mean time, we authors can make use of the findings to improve our story telling.
The key to all these chemical reactions appears to be emotional empathy. If you write a good emotional scene, which to the reader feels like real life, it actually becomes real life for that reader.

For an author, the next questions are obvious: who chemically engages people the best? Whose work should we study to make ours better? Unfortunately, the limited amount of research conducted in this area focuses only on film directors, where the master: Alfred Hitchcock, really is the master.

Well I’m off to get a shot of serotonin by watching a Hitchcock film so I can learn how to better addict my readers.


Sources: New Scientist, vol 209, No 2799, 12 Feb 2011