Continuing in our four post series on the foundation for harnessing your readers’ psychology, today we’re exploring how story affects us. We’ve already explored where story is (essentially, everywhere), and why we love it so much (because it serves a very useful function!), and now we’re going to discover exactly how deeply it’s been wired into our grey matter.
Genes are the building blocks of our DNA. They mutate and blend, creating an myriad of possibilities for survival of the fittest to select from. Each gene is a blueprint for a particular characteristic, and if that particular characteristic helps us survive, it receives a tick of evolutionary approval and is spread throughout the population. Evolution thought opposable thumbs were pretty cool, language was pretty useful, and that being drawn to story was pretty important.
Evolution thought the benefits of narratives were so important that it actually wired us for story. In fact, it thought it was so important that it deeply embedded it into our grey matter in two significant ways. The first is in the chemical communications that happen in our head. Namely dopamine, the little molecule involved in pleasure and reward. Cheesecake, coitus and cocaine all trigger the release of dopamine in our brain.
And so does devouring a good book.
In the case of reading, dopamine is your brain’s way of rewarding curiosity, so you can learn the hard-won lessons the character is enduring (in the safety of the library or your bedroom). Interestingly, the more dopamine is released, the more of a high we get, the more we want to keep doing what we’re doing. Most importantly, if the brain anticipates doing that activity again, like reading, it will release dopamine accordingly.
Think about it, we’ve all been there when our favourite author releases a new book. When that book finally rests in your palms, that happy, heady feeling has you diving into the first page no matter where you are. It’s the brain’s way of encouraging you to go for it because it felt so good last time.
The second has us probing right down at a cellular level. Neurons are the spindly, spidery cells that make up our brain matter. They’re the little suckers that zip information and messages all around our brain and body. A relatively recent discovery was that of mirror neurons, cells that fire both when you do something but also when you see someone else doing it. Oh, like hear a story, watch a movie…or read a book! Mirror neurons are why we get just as excited watching sport as playing it, why we scrunch up in our seats and turn our eyes away from a horror film.
Or why we have a physical, visceral response to a great book. One study scanned participants brains whilst they watched scenes from Clint Eastwood’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. What the functional magnetic resonance imaging machine (fMRI) showed was that viewers’ brains ‘caught’ whatever emotions were being acted out on the screen. When Eastwood was angry, the viewers brain was angry. When the scene was sad, the viewers brain was sad, too.
In a similar study, a team of neuroscientists popped some research subjects in a fMRI scanner while they played a short clip of an actor drinking from a cup and then grimacing in disgust. They also scanned subjects while researchers read a short story, asking participants to imagine walking down the street, accidentally bumping into a retching drunk, and catching some of the vomit in their own mouths (anyone else have an instinctive, visceral reaction to that?!? Actually, that’s our very own mirror neurons working right now!). Finally, the scientists scanned the subjects’ brains while they actually tasted disgusting solutions.
In all three cases, the region of the brain associated with disgust (the anterior insula, in case you were wondering) lit up. It’s fascinating to appreciate that whether we see a movie or read a story, the same thing happens—we activate the sensation of disgust. This is exactly why reading a book can make us feel as if we are literally experiencing what the characters are going through.
Pretty cool, huh?
What’s more, in addition to the evidence that the brain responds to depictions of smells and textures and movements as if they were the real thing, science has also discovered it treats social interactions among fictional characters as real-life. A review of 86 fMRI studies by psychologist Raymond Mar concluded that there is substantial overlap in brain networks used to understand stories and those used to navigate interactions with other individuals. What’s more, this is particularly evident in interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others.
Actually, it’s not surprising that reading fiction can improve a reader’s ability to put themselves in another person’s shoes. But what’s really cool for us lovers of the written word is that recent research has discovered that people who read score higher in empathy and understanding others. Readers who frequently read fiction are better able to understand other people, empathise with them and see the world from their perspective. Yes, it literally makes you a better person! And when empathy is linked to prosocial behaviour and health benefits for the individual, it seems everyone wins when you pick up a book.
Are you noticing the overlap of this information with the earlier chapter on why we’re drawn to story? These studies of the ‘brain on fiction’ are consistent with the theory that story functions as a virtual reality, a place for us to safely learn so we can improve our ability to deal with real-life problems, but more specifically, the complexities of social life.
Straddling the unique position of both reader and writer, authors already appreciate that story offers a unique opportunity to engage this capacity—it’s a space where we can identify with characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and vicariously experience encounters with friends and lovers, competitors and enemies. As a reader we’ve felt the heady sensation of immersion, and as a writer we try to capture it.
For you as a writer, this neuro-soup of cells and chemicals is one you want to tap into. When a reader is experiencing that rush of dopamine, they will keep reading. When they are experiencing your story world as if it were their own, they will keep reading. Building on what we’ve learned, there’s one big thing you have into include in your story, and that’s what we’re going to explore next.
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