Story Brain

Could reading a story about an experience and encountering it in real life have the same effect on our brain? There are scientists researching this question and what they’ve found is pretty amazing. The results have made me really think about why I’m attracted to certain stories over others.

I came across this article from the New York Times that was published last year and it talks about neuroscience’s research of the effects of fiction on the brain. It’s one piece in the puzzle I’m trying to put together about why stories are so important to us human beings.

Stories are the way we learn about the world, and as some of the research suggests, reading helps us “hone our real-life social skills.” It’s a safe place for us to encounter fear, love, heartbreak, betrayal, and excitement — all without the real-life social and physical dangers.

Joseph Campbell often talked about fairy tales in a similar way, saying that they are the way for children to learn about the world around them before they head out into society at large.

But that need for story doesn’t just die out after we hit first grade. We keep consuming stories throughout our whole lives and as we get older, what we need out of stories changes.

One of my favorite books when I was a kid was James and the Giant Peach. I remember hating James’ two horrible aunts and being so excited when he discovered that magical peach with its insectile inhabitants and flew away in it to explore the world.

A few years after I moved to Los Angeles and started my career in animation, I read The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon and was inspired. I really related to the main characters who were struggling to get their art recognized by the comic world. I think, in a way, it helped me navigate the animation world I had entered and showed me two characters who were trying to find their own artistic voice while also trying to make a living and dealing with the studio system.

We are naturally drawn to certain stories, depending on our personalities, interests, and ideals. I believe we seek out stories that we hope will help us figure out the world we are a part of. Like a computer simulator, stories are a safe way to test the waters and see how we would react in certain situations. Likely, the experiences we encounter in fiction or at the movies will never literally happen to us. I love Game of Thrones but I don’t ever expect to find myself vying to conquer a kingdom.  But the emotions we feel in those stories and the lessons we learn are things we can take into our everyday life. Maybe we treat people a little nicer, maybe we are more honest with our friends, or maybe we realize that our job doesn’t define who we are.

As the author of the article so eloquently puts it: “Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined.”

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42 thoughts on “Story Brain

  1. Very cool. I still keep Erin Hunter’s Warriors seires close to heart, and one of the biggest emotional impacts I’ve had lately was Telltale’s game The Walking Dead. For a series you’d expect to be violent it takes emotion and character interaction as the top priority. I still get over emotional just watching clips from that game.

  2. Studies have shown that reading, watchin, and doing a thing activates the same part of the brain, exercising it in a way and allowing for more signals to be sent and received from that part of the brain, certain things you do or watch or read about also activate an emotional response in your brain and make you more in tune and able to understand and transmit that emotion. James and the giant peach for instance may have invoked your negative feelings towards injustice and your quest to let the world know that injustice is wrong and should be eradicated. Thank you for everything Michael you have in many ways changed and enhanced my life.

  3. All this is very true indeed. And since kids are reading less and less (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-19511825) and prefer to watch television (or play games/use social media), it is great they still get some quality time with shows like Avatar.

    I was around 12 years old when Avatar started, and now, as an adult, I often appreciate the show in different ways and start to realize it really is unique.

    I wondered, Mike, what the Avatar crew thinks of the (second) Fullmetal Alchemist (Brotherhood) anime? It has a continuous story too, and remains, together with ATLA/TLOK, at the top of my recommendations list to people I know.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Ivan. It’s so crazy to me that 10 years has passed by since we started Avatar. I’ve seen some of the Fullmetal Alchemist that you’re talking about. What I’ve seen I really liked, but I haven’t watched the whole series. I know a bunch of people on the crew really love it.

      1. Cool FMA is liked on the crew too, though the contrary would have been improbable. I really recommend watching the whole series, but only after all TLOK seasons are finished, because you need a period with little deadlines/pressure for watching FMA. It is so addicting, it would probably harm your work on TLOK LOL 🙂

  4. Ever since I was little, reading has been an integral part of my life. Growing up in a small Texas town, it was my escape. If I was in trouble and sent to my room, I never saw that as a punishment. I could lie on the floor with my elbows on a pillow and tuck into whatever book I happened to have. One of my favourite things is that moment when you realise that you’ve fallen in love with a ‘verse that a creator has built. To feel that elation when my heart soars for a character’s triumph or I shed tears for the heartache, it’s addictive! Sometimes it felt more real than my own real life problems because I had really lost myself in what I was reading. Thank you for writing this blog and thank you and Bryan for creating a ‘verse that enraptured me from the beginning : )

  5. I really liked what you said about how we use stories to understand the world around us. I once had an English teacher who made it clear she didn’t think fantasy or adventure stories could be as deep or meaningful as “real” literature. However, when you read stories that take place in extraordinary situations, I don’t think you’re supposed to interpret them literally. Like you said, you can still relate to the emotions and struggles the characters are facing, even if you you will never go through these same exact experiences. I understand why some people think something has to be real for it to be important, but I’ve never really agreed with this notion. Characters like Aang and Korra are important to me because I can relate to feelings like being afraid to let people down when others are counting on me. They showed me that these kind of fears are natural and how to overcome them. It’s not that I didn’t already know this deep down, but I think it’s so much more meaningful when you see it in a story with which you’ve connected emotionally.

  6. Yes! Everything in this article — that’s become a big motivating factor for why I write. ATLA was an animated series that made me feel and think about my own real life and change some of the ways I approached it. I started working on an Avatar-based project that more directly explores that idea of how themes from the Avatar story can be applied to my reality, and even just in writing that out I’ve been further inspired to reflect on my life. To put it bluntly, in a strange way, experiencing the ATLA story and writing Avatar ‘fanfiction’ (though I’ve been told that’s not quite the best word for what it is) helped me work through and move forward from a divorce; make a big move, start a new life, etc. And now I’m trying to take what I’ve learned in writing Avatar-inspired stories and start trying to do my own original stuff.

    Sometimes I get reader comments on my stories and get told something like, “When ____ happened to this character, it made me relate with them because I’m dealing with that, too. Seeing how they overcame that problem has helped inspire me to find a way to move past the same thing in my own life.”

    THAT is the kind of comment that I strive for, as a writer — if my work can touch other people’s reality the same way the works of people like you have touched mine, there’s nothing more I can ask for, really. And I can assure you, Michael, your work has definitely done that for many people already.

    I guess this is why I value character development so highly — watching a character grow over time and resolve problems, both internal and external, can help the audience reflect on their own reality and, ideally, approach problems in their life with more confidence and self-esteem. One theme, for example, that I love in your work with Avatar is a recurring element of ‘moving on,’ or ‘letting go,’ which is a big personal issue for me that I’ve struggled with over time. Seeing characters like Aang who have lost so MUCH more than I ever could find ways to deal with that, move forward with life, and become a better person as a result — that is the sort of inspiring stuff that accomplishes what this article is all about.

    I’ll have to second Melinda’s comment about the recent Walking Dead game, which more directly does what this article is about in that it literally asks the players to make choices about solemn situations, deliberately forcing the audience to actually think about how to cope with hard things. And I’ll also second what Ivan said about how it’s that much more important for our modern multimedia to have thoughtful storytelling in it, because that is how the younger generation is experiencing stories these days.

    Thank you for starting this blog and for working so hard with such an interesting cast of characters in the Avatar world. It impacts my life and I look forward to seeing where you guys go with Korra.

    1. “if my work can touch other people’s reality the same way the works of people like you have touched mine, there’s nothing more I can ask for, really. And I can assure you, Michael, your work has definitely done that for many people already.” –> Exactly, and for me, “The Guru” is an episode that keeps touching my reality in a profound manner. And according to Bryan and Mike in “The art of” book, a lot of people had/have the same experience…

      I already mentioned Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, above, but since you mention the ‘moving on’ and ‘letting go’ aspects of ATLA: those are incredibly important in FMAB too, so if you haven’t seen that series, put it on your list right now 🙂

      1. Agreed on FMA, I’ve seen both versions of the anime and read a lot of the manga, and I would agree that it is about those themes and explores them to good effect. In regards to the conversation below about season finales, I’d argue that while ATLA also had a DEM, it still had thematic consistency, whereas Book 1 of Korra didn’t in its finale (a lot of events in episodes 11&12 flew in the face of themes established in earlier episodes) — but they also still have 3 more seasons to explore ideas with, and either way, the productions values were great throughout, and the season as a whole was pretty spectacular. The team is inherently limited in some of the depth of things they can explore compared to FMA, with Korra being rated younger and all, but despite that, they’ve managed to do WAY more than one would expect from a show airing on Nickelodeon.

      2. @Eddy Fettig:

        I felt that episodes 11 and 12 hit the themes that Mike spoke of in this very comment section — Korra’s struggle with identity and her inability to conceive of herself without reference to her bending — right on the head, not only in a direct form through Korra’s own actions, but also in a reflected form through Amon’s backstory and downfall. That secondary themes, even ones that the fanbase is intensely invested in like privilege and oppression, may be pushed aside in favor of the show’s primary thematic concerns is only to be expected.

  7. I’ve always found myself drawn to stories in which the characters deal with and overcome the sorts of challenges that I face myself, so it’s really interesting to find out that such an effect has been demonstrated scientifically! My ability to empathize with the characters is probably the one thing that makes a story stick with me more than anything — flashy action can be fun in the moment, but if the characters involved don’t display a full range of emotion, the end result tends to be fairly unmemorable (outside of highly-quotable one-liners, anyway!).

    Fandom might be relevant in this context, too. Fanfiction is a great way to explore characters, either by focusing on what makes them act the way they do or putting them in situations that they’d never have faced in canon, while metafiction can focus directly on the hows and whys of the way characters behave in canon. Creating derivative works certainly seems to be a clear demonstration of the ways in which interacting with fiction can be like a computer simulation, particularly when those works’ creators seek to remain consistent with the characters and world described in the original work.

    Another thing that could be related to the human need for stories is the way in which society itself tends to devalue certain emotions and suggest that it’s shameful or wrong to allow others to see us express them. In some ways, stories might be the only way in which we allow ourselves to fully immerse ourselves in those emotions that we are uncomfortable with when they arise in ourselves — sorrow, despair, anger, hatred, fear, desire for revenge — while allowing the fictional nature of their causes to grant us the necessary distance needed to accept them instead of shoving them back down into our subconscious and pretending they don’t exist.

    With all of that said, I’ve felt an incredibly deep connection with Avatar: the Last Airbender and especially with Legend of Korra. In some ways, I feel like seeking to fully understand Korra as a character has helped me understand myself better in the process, doing the same with Tarrlok and Noatak has helped me better understand the darker side of human nature, and considering where all three overlap and diverge has helped me recognize the different effects that an overwhelming need to define oneself as a hero can have on one’s emotional reactions and behavior. I strongly identify with Korra and her struggles, and I’d like to thank you for everything you’ve done to bring her story into being.

    1. I love what you said. Yes, empathy is a major factor is what makes a story work, I think. I definitely want to explore that more. And certainly fictional worlds and characters are a safe place to experience the more difficult (or socially unacceptable) emotions, like you said. Thanks for the response.

      1. And thank you for your own response! Empathy and the way it influences fiction is something that fascinates me, so I can’t wait to see what you have to say about it.

        It’s also interesting to think about the ways that empathy can interfere in one’s enjoyment of a work of fiction. Different people, of course, empathize more strongly with different sorts of characters, so it’s possible that a well-realized character can be completely unappealing to someone who doesn’t personally empathize with that type while being the absolute favorite of someone else who does.

        On the other hand, I suspect that some people seek out certain sorts of fiction in order to avoid empathetic identification. It’s easy to imagine someone might choose to watch, say, a Transformers movie because it isn’t as important to care about the people on-screen, so they can lose themselves in the visual spectacle instead of having to feel anything outside of the adrenaline rush of stuff blowing up. It’s hard to say that’s a bad way of experiencing fiction (or that fiction created for that end can’t also be experienced through the lens of empathy), but it’s certainly a different sort of enjoyment than the sort that comes from caring deeply.

  8. I loved what you said about reading being the perfect medium for us to experience certain emotions. The importance of reading has really been written off in this time, and it’s sad to see something so important be so overlooked.

    That’s one of the reasons why I appreciate Avatar so much. In today’s time, everything just feels so rushed. Songs, movies and especially television seem to lack the quality that they used to have. It’s a commonly known fact that the entertainment industry is fueled by the greed for money, but is it really necessary to make it seem so obvious?

    The entertainment industry has churned out content for the sole reason of money and its upsetting to see how low standards have dropped these days. I appreciate Avatar because it’s more than a children’s show. It’s a bit like reading, actually: it’s a medium to experience love, hate and confusion in a kid-friendly environment.

    It’s obvious how much time and care you and Bryan put into the show and I love it because of the life lesson that can be learned from it. It’s not just some story thrown onto the screen. It has meaning, and that aspect has been seriously lacking in most areas of entertainment.

    Now I have a quick question for you, when you plan an episode or even a season of Avatar, do you sit down and try to find ways to convey a message through your story telling, or does a message just happen to come up because the show is so deep?

    1. One of the (many) things that I love about Avatar is the fact that the creators knew its end date rather than allowing it to limp towards an eventual cancellation. Would I want more of Team Avatar? Yes. Would I want the quality to dip just for more episodes? Hell no.

      1. I agree. It’s great that they have an end vision of the show rather than an end vision of their bank account. They put quality above all and that’s why I respect them so much.

    2. Usually, the story comes together only once we have the main theme or message figured out. At the start of a season there is often a several week period in the writing room where we throw out any and all ideas — what we’d like to see the characters do, random jokes, cool action sequences, etc. But it doesn’t all gel until we can hone in on what a particular season is really about. For Book 1, things came together once we knew it would be about Korra’s struggle with self-identity. Not that we had it all figured out from the start, but we created Amon specifically to test Korra with that main idea — who would she be if her bending (the main thing she identified herself with) was taken away. That’s why “The Voice in the Night” became one of my favorite episodes, because it explored her fear and vulnerability.

      1. that sounds insteresting but I think the execution was kinda lackluster, I like episode 4 but then, in the finale, Korra gets her bending back too easy and thanks to a Deus Ex Machina.

      2. I can’t agree with that. True, it’s a DEM, but then, I guess you didn’t like ATLA’s finale either? He gets his avatar state back after a “lucky” hit on a rock.

        The whole point of Korra getting her bending back through a DEM, isn’t the part of “getting her bending back”, but the part of “connecting to her spiritual self, and therefore Aang”, I believe… And for most viewers it was the most emotional part of the show :’)

      3. “The Voice in the Night” was an excellent episode, even if it hurt to see Korra go through all that. It’s really interesting to have a villain whose threat is largely psychological and explore the effects that has on the hero (and certainly less common than villains who pose a largely-physical threat). I liked “When Extremes Meet” for a similar reason — seeing Korra’s escalating reactions to Tarrlok’s power-plays said a lot about her, and their fight at the end of the episode was shocking in several very good ways.

      4. Very interesting to see the process you went through there. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t see the theme as a whole being Korra’s struggle for self-identity, though I definitely do now. Thankfully, I did at least see it in “The Voice in the Night”, at least. Moreover, I just loved how it was so consistent in exploring the character of a girl whose introduction was marked by both cockiness and a prodigy of bending (basically the whole “I’m the Avatar! You gotta deal with it!” moment/s). Not that other characters didn’t get great characterisation – most characters were quite complex in ‘Korra’ and it was a joy seeing them in action – but, of course,Korra was the main focus of events.

        I look really look forward to seeing how the themes of Book 2, 3 and 4 will now play out in what I’m sure will be an amazing tale!

  9. I think the characters in ATLA were so relatable and I love the whole cast, sadly I can’t say the same for LoK, mostly of characters did things that didn’t make much sense and they were so underveloped, I hope season two gets better.

    1. Well, keep in mind that the original series went on for like 70 episodes, so of course you could relate with them by that point, they haven’t had time to spread their wings yet. The original series made a HUGE leap forward in Book 2, so I think the same could still happen with LoK, as well. =)

    2. LoK did feel a bit rushed, but maybe we can think of it as a quick introduction. this gives everyone a chance to step back, take a breath, and regroup. in the last episode, when Aang told her “when we are at our lowest point, we are open to the greatest change” her lowest point may not have been when she lost her bending. An article posted on tumblr pointed out that she may have to step back, let go of all her original assumptions of what an avatar is, and start from the bottom up. Perhaps in the upcoming seasons, we may see just that; so for this reason, I am actually looking forward to the second book.

  10. Something just clicked for me:

    Alexander the great carried around the Iliad with him everywhere he went, and Abraham Lincoln took with him Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”. The Iliad, being *the* greatest account of war/strategy/heroism, was perfect for Alexander the conqueror. Leaves of Grass was all about the contradictions and beauty of a democratic nation, which Lincoln went on to embody and protect.

    My professors always told me that fiction was the greatest teacher of statesmen, even more than political science or economics or history. All of those disciplines can only tell you about what *has been*. Only stories can inspire in you things *to be*.

  11. Something just clicked for me:

    Alexander the great carried around the Iliad with him everywhere he went, and Abraham Lincoln took with him Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”. The Iliad, being *the* greatest account of war/strategy/heroism, was perfect for Alexander the conqueror. Leaves of Grass was all about the contradictions and beauty of a democratic nation, which Lincoln went on to embody and protect.

    My professors always told me that fiction was the greatest teacher of statesmen, even more than political science or economics or history. All of those disciplines can only tell you about what *has been*. Only stories can inspire in you things *to be*.

  12. Good writing Aang… i mean Michael… hehe… you look the damned same! Stories definitely shape us or at least shape how we perceive the world around us. They can influence us for good and bad. I learnt about morality from books, stories, movies, series. These are all stories. Even music tells a story… (some argue music is the sound of emotion… make of that what you will). I have learned most of what makes up my self from Ged The Sparrowhawk, Richard Rahl & Kahlan Amnell, Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman, Homer, The other more Funny Homer, Harry potter, Admiral Adama and the Colonial Fleet, SG1, The inhabitants of the discworld, Aang and his crew, Korra and hers, Drs Dorian,Cox,Turk and Kelso from scrubs… the list goes on… In some ways these characters and stories are more real than i am… they will be remembered perhaps long after im dead… they are the true immortals and carry our human legacy from one generation to the next…

  13. It’s an incredible divide between the world as we see it in our daily lives, and the world as shown to us through fiction. All the same colors and elements and senses are appealed to, but the hyperfocusing capability of fiction gives us a sort of highlight reel (or blooper reel) version of the human experience.

    To me, the best novels are not just about reflection, but an active, forced reflection. It takes the inescapable punch of the real world and puts it in a (possibly) comfortable, detached setting. When the reader’s brain is working out someone else’s problems from behind a pane of glass, we get all the emotional osmosis without the physical fatigue. A purely mental exercise, which is what I think the article is saying (more eloquently and professionally).

    Just started following your blog. As a fellow writer and a huge fan, thanks a bunch for posting the article and giving your thoughts. I’ve got one for you, although it’s not related to storytelling. Neuroscience and crime (re: responsibility): http://www.aeonmagazine.com/being-human/steve-fleming-neuroscience-crime/

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