Wired For Stories

June 18th, 2018 Brain World, Features

Humans don’t only respond to stories, we can’t stay away from them. Because of a unique emotional property, the brain tends to connect us deeply to stories and narratives. Why are we so primed for a good book or movie to carry us away?

To understand how, look no further than Clark Kent’s glasses. Stories connect with our emotions directly and make believers out of us. When you think about it, a superhero known the world over putting on a pair of glasses and a tie and going to work at the Daily Planet where nobody recognises him is kind of ridiculous.

Except it isn’t. It’s actually a testament to what can be thought of as story-readiness potential. Our emotional response sees us swept up in stories and narratives instinctively, even without meaning to. If a film, book, comic or even a friendly anecdote builds a world and characters and puts them in a coherent sense of their own logic, we belive it fully – often suspending belief in our own world to do so. When Superman puts on glasses and the dialogue and performances make it obvious nobody around him knows who he really is, it poses no barrier to us believing it, no matter how silly.

From jaw-dropping tales of the hunt around the tribal campfire to the incredible reach of the modern media, our emotional repsonse to accounts of danger, romance, drama, thrills and terror have been a critical part of our social evolution as a species. But while enjoying a good yarn on a screen or in the pages of a book (or around the primeval campfire) is great for relaxation and amusement, such a strong disposition must have a deep-seated anthropological point.

Talking to ourselves

The first step to understand why humans are such effective storytelling and story-readiness animals is to realise that we oursevles are stories – your unbroken stream of consciousness is the story of your life, told in the language of emotion about your memories and experiences.

As the late neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote, ‘each of us constructs and lives a narrative. This narrative is us.’ Philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote ‘we are all virtuoso novelists, who find ourselves engaged in all sorts of behaviour… and we always put the best ‘faces’ on it we can. We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography. The chief fictional character at the centre of that autobiography is one’s self.’

Everything that goes on around us is likewise a story, from War and Peace to a garden beetle we watch climbing up a flower. We even attribute story where none might exist – holding back from impeding the beetle’s progress because of the disappointment or frustration it might feel, even though we know both emotions are probably too advanced for a beetle to ever experience.

It partly explains our tendency to anthropomorphise, subconsciously applying human characteristics and emotions to non-human – sometimes inanimate – objects. In 2000’s Cast Away, Tom Hanks paints a face onto a volleyball and it becomes a stand-in for human contact to the extent it keeps him sane. Think of the way a child will apply human emotion and interactional frameworks onto any toy or object (a practice the Walt Disney Company has made a fortune out of over the years).

We’re even hardwired to react emotionally to stories so much we sometimes make them up to make sense of the world when they don’t fit all the facts, in a phenomenon called confabulation (‘fabula’ is the Latin word for ‘story’). If two equally qualified candidates – male and female – apply for a job, the bias towards believing males are more capable in the workplace kicks in, and recruiters will tell you afterward they picked the male candidate because he seemed more qualified.

The power of story

Our predilection for stories makes them one of the most powerful tools to communicate with and sometimes manipulate behaviour through our emotional response, as experts from advertising, politics and plenty of other professional fields well know. Facts and reason are cold, even-tempered, not concerned with context. Stories connect directly with the emotions, so they elicit a much faster, hotter and stronger response.

Think of the boundless statistics about third world hunger we gloss over impassively while a picture of a single sick, hungry child with flies on her face in a magazine has us reaching for our wallets to make a donation. In his forthcoming book Human Errors, CUNY biologist Nathan Lents says ‘Stories carry more weight with us than generalized statistics do because we can relate to the protagonists of a story and feel empathy for them. We cannot feel empathy for data.’

It’s the kind of ethos Hollywood was built on, artifice designed to move us emotionally even at the expense of the truth. How many movies ‘inspired by’ true events have there been? Today, commercial and political interests hoping to convince the public to buy know how important it is to find, design and spread the narrative about a product or candidate. Against all odds, a widely disliked man won the White House with a simple story (Make America Great Again), beating an opponent who seemed far more dignified and experienced by comparison.

But the emotional power of stories isn’t just about swaying people to your way of thinking. Dr Paul J Zak is an author, professor of economics, psychology, and management and the director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, and his work has shown that character-driven stories with emotional content result in a better understanding of key points and enable better recall later.

Storytelling machines

What’s perhaps most amazing isn’t just our willingness to buy into stories, but the efficiency with which our emotions latch onto them even when we know it’s a fictional construction.

Sit down to a movie with terrible special effects and your nervous and emotional systems will still react as if there’s really a giant lizard attacking a city or a madman in a hockey mask skewering a nubile teenager with a garden implement. Even if we watch shadow puppets against a wall we immediately understand the emotional journey the dog and the rabbit are going on. It’s not the quality of the art that makes our response transcend the artifice, it’s our constant state of story-readiness.

Part of that is the extent to which our brains want to believe in illusions. We’ve all heard of the experiments where mirrors and rubber arms trick us into thinking a fake limb is ours and swear we can feel it being stroked by a feather. Writ a little larger, the same mental trickery can be applied to the frameworks that deliver narratives. One example presented at Siggraph 2017 (the anual trade show for computer-driven visual technology) was a new approach to VR.

Traditionally a virtual space has to be much the same size as the physical space the user occupies. But by very slowly rotating the VR image at a different speed to that of the user’s movements and the selective moving and replacing of features within the VR world, USC’s Dr Evan Suma Rosenberg and his team can make the virtual space far larger than the real world user area. Part of Rosenberg’s research came from psychology where he discovered that even when the brain perceives of something as spatially wrong, it doesn’t take us out of the experience as much as you’d assume. It works partly because the changes made without the user directing them are too subtle to perceive, but also because the environment is simply another story we instinctively want to believe in.

But the second and maybe even more fascinating aspect of our hard wiring for stories is the unique phenomenon where we’re completely decoupled from our conscious selves. There are a couple of similar things in the human behavioural repertoire (sleep, the point of orgasm, etc) but when we’re watching a movie or reading a novel, we quite literally forget we exist, vicariously living the lives and feeling the emotions of those in the story in place of our. Until the movie ends, we put the book down or internal mechanics (like a full bladder) demand enough attention we can become unaware of the usual trappings of our sense of self like time passing.

The secret ingredient

The instinct that expresses itself as story-readiness might be homo sapiens’ advanced powers of empathy – a critical skill in the collaborate-or-die world of proto-humans.

It’s a thesis some brain studies seem to bear out. Dr Tania Singer of the Max Planck Institute’s Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences department showed how the brain responds to an event that’s not happening to us but we nevertheless witness. If we hit our thumb with a hammer, one ‘circuit’ acsertains whether the senstation is pleasant or unpleasant, another tells us where in the body the sensation is localised and the third gives us the perception of the pain itself. If we see someone else hit their thumb with a hammer the first circuit – distinguishing between pleasure and pain – is activated, creating a general awareness in us of how nasty it must feel despite not feeling the pain ourselves.

There’s also the finding that the stories you experience in films and books might be making you as fulfilled as if you’d lived them yourself. As research from San Francisco State University has shown, books, videos and other ‘experiential products’ provide the same levels of happiness as life experiences, suggesting that the emotions portrayed in stories are as real to us as our own.

Such a claim stands to reason – as we’ve already seen in the phenomenon where your sense of self effectively ceases to exist, a good story comes to life in our consciousness and feels as real as other experiences in life when you’re engrossed in it. Associate professor of psychology Ryan Howell, the study’s co-author, called the results ‘good news for materialists’. “If your goal is to make yourself happier but you’re a person who likes stuff, then you should buy things that are going to engage your senses,” he said. “You’re going to be just as happy as if you buy a life experience, because in some sense this product is going to give you a life experience.”

Lisa Bortolotti, professor of philosophy at the UK’s University of Birmingham, who specialises in the philosophy of the cognitive sciences, says that if our avid consumption of stories is at least partly explained by our capacity to feel for fictional characters, it seems to fit the idea that fiction helps simulate feelings appropriate to different circumstances. “When we read a book or watch a movie about war, illness or divorce, we prepare ourselves for those situations that we might not have encountered yet in our lives,” she says. “Fictional stories are like a practice run for real life.”

Clues from the chemistry of brain response certainly seems to identify empathy as the secret sauce of story-readiness. As Paul Zak’s research showed, the brain produces oxytocin when we feel trusted or are shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others, doing so by enhancing the ability to experience others’ emotions. “By taking blood before and after the narrative, we found character-driven stories consistently cause oxytocin synthesis,” he says.

Mental bedfellows

Just like our love of stories, empathy predates language, which gives a little more credence to the idea that the two are inextricably linked. Findings at London’s University College go so far as to claim that story-readiness was the element that promoted cooperation among hunter-gatherers before the advent of religion.

In fact empathy probably predates human beings altogether. Anecdotes abound of dolphins rescuing terrified humans lost at sea or animals caring for the young of other species they find abandoned or alone, but primatologist Frans de Waal once saw it close up. His book Our Inner Ape talks about the day he was showing child psychologist Carolyn Zahn-Waxler around his Yerkes, Georgia chimpanzee colony when Thai, an adult female particularly taken with de Waal, started screaming and hitting herself because he wasn’t paying her enough attention.

That his subsequent fawning over Thai calmed her down isn’t the interesting part. The other apes in the colony crowded around her to murmur and stroke her, comforting her in her distress. Just as fascinating was that Zahn-Waxler recognised the behaviour from her work with kids – babies exhibit comforting behaviours from little more than 12 months of age. So not only does empathy seem common to all primates, we seem to be born with it.

The thing is, empathy makes perfect evolutionary sense. Seeing the signals tribemates gave off let us imagine the pain, fear or joy they felt before they had the means to just tell us how they felt, and the fact that empathy is an entirely emotional response gave us a very efficient method of social interaction. Encouraging everyone to be a productive member of the group was often a literal matter of life and death.

But what about story-readiness? “There are different hypotheses about the evolutionary advantages our love for stories might have,” says Lisa Bortolotti. “Some think telling stories increases sexual attractiveness and improves our chances to reproduce. Others say storytelling brings us together, forging social bonds among individuals and supporting cooperation in groups. One theory that resonates with recent debates about fake news and the power of stories in politics is that telling stories helps us control other people. We often tell stories to support an argument and persuade others we’re right to get them on our side.”

Weirder still, maybe being hard wired for stories is just an unintended evolutionary consequence of empathy, a skill taken too far like some research suggests language is in relation to breath control. In a world full of predators, rivals and mating opportunities, anything (the prehistoric equivalent of a good book) that so completely disconnects you from your immediate sense of self and your environment is dangerous.

Of course, evolution is a constant series of trade-offs. We won’t notice the hungry sabre tooth cat sneaking into the cave until it’s too late if we’re in the throes of passion, but sex ensures greater genetic diversity across a species. Spending eight hours a night unconscious likewise left our forebears completely unguarded, but sleep offers a biological advantage that’s worth the biological risk.

In the cost/benefit analysis of empathising with others to the point where a story will carry us away from the here and now and leave us vulnerable, how can story-readiness possibly be an evolutionary advantage? If the upside wasn’t worth the risk, evolution would have elected against the behaviour (or gene) long ago.

Lisa Bortolotti agrees that our capacity for becoming engrossed in story has both benefits and costs when it comes to survival. The advantage might be that stories count as practise for the day we ourselves live the experience depicted, whether it’s falling in love or fighting off alien invaders. “But too much empathy or too much involvement in a story can also be costly,” she says. “Things are complicated!”

Using it

We can artifically change dopamine levels, affect thought processes with transcranial magnetic stimulation and affect brain health in countless other ways. Could we somehow hack our hardwired propensity for narratives to treat mental illnesses or brain disorders?

Paul Zak’s lab has found that highly immersive stories can change attitudes, opinions and behaviors effectively, even weeks after the story was seen or heard. “I haven’t seen a systematic application of story to mental illness,” he says, “but take the friend or family member who convinces you to visit a psychiatrist, the psychiatrist who convinces you to take some medications or join a counselling group, the stories by others to stay on the medications that often have unpleasant side effects.”

“Some mental illnesses are what I call ‘cortical fantasies’, like depression and pain. Not to say they’re not real, but the brain establishes a maladaptive loop where anxiety leads to inaction (depression) or pain signals are experienced as debilitating. Social support, which always comes with a story, can change our interpretation of the stressors and in some cases make them disappear. I don’t think stories are the most effective treatment for severe mental illnesses like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, but they could be part of it.”

The concepts of self, story, emotion and empathy are closely linked in the human animal. Whatever they can teach us about what we are and where we’re headed, it’s certain they’ve played a pretty big part in getting us this far.


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