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.”