Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Why do we need stories?

Sandra Parshall

The next time you’re in the fiction section of a library or bookstore, take a minute to really see what’s around you. Each of those novels holds between its covers a distinct world that was created inside someone’s head.

Every year thousands of fictional worlds, inhabited by nonexistent people living out imaginary lives, are written, published, and sold. The human hunger for made-up stories is insatiable – and unique. No other animal feels a desire, a need, to live simultaneously in the real world and in a wild variety of alternate, imaginary worlds.

Why do people have such a strong compulsion to tell and to hear, to write and to read, fictional versions of human experience? Why isn’t reality enough?

Reading fiction is usually seen as an escape from reality – so much so that many parents worry about children who “read too much” and don’t spend enough time interacting with other kids. They fear that their children will be isolated and fail to develop the “people skills” necessary to succeed in society. A series of psychological studies done over the past few years, though, should set the parents’ minds at ease. In every study, frequent readers of fiction were shown to be more understanding of other people’s viewpoints, better at reading the moods of others, and more open to new experiences. They suffered less from loneliness and social isolation than people who read primarily nonfiction.

Fiction has social benefits even when it’s not in print form and bound between covers. In a 2010 study of pre-school children, a team of psychologists found that the more fictional stories the kids listened to, and the more fictional movies they saw, the better able they were to understand other people’s viewpoints and beliefs. Watching television, however, didn’t provide the same benefits. The psychologists theorize that TV shows are too simplistic and don’t challenge the mind and emotions the way more complex forms of fiction do.

We need stories in order to make sense of human life. While we’re immersed in a fictional world, we set aside our own beliefs and concerns and adopt the point of view of the protagonist. The two worst things we can say about any fictional person are “She/He didn’t seem real to me” and “I didn’t care about the character.” Most of us don’t read fiction out of mere curiosity, to watch characters we don’t care about move through a series of events we can never accept as real. We want to be pulled into the story. We want to lose ourselves in the fictional world. We want to understand it, however different it may be from our own experience. Understanding fictional events and people makes us more open-minded in the real world.

If you’d like to read details of studies done in this area, look for an article by cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley in the November/December issue of Scientific American Mind. (You will not be able to read the entire article on the magazine’s website.)

If you’d like to test whether your immersion in fiction has sharpened your ability to read other people’s emotions, take this free online test:

Come back afterward and tell me how you scored!

Speaking of stories and books, December 3 is the second annual Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day. Click on the link to read about it, then spread the word!


H. L. Banks said...

I have, since a very young age, have been drawn to stories whether they be spoken or written. This has never left me and today the same inexplicable urge to find a new author, read a new book, and yes, sometimes, re-read an old favourite, have never left me and I hope never will.

Sandra Parshall said...

All animals communicate in one way or another, but the evidence is they're usually "talking" about food, territory, and sex, their primary survival concerns. Humans make up elaborately detailed alternate worlds populated by nonexistent people acting out imaginary scenarios. An entire industry revolves around this peculiar habit, a massive library system exists to house our stories, and some of us make it our life's work to live in our imaginations. This is all pretty weird when you stop to think about it.

Julia Buckley said...

I got a 27. I found it very difficult to judge the expression with only the eyes--I felt that I needed to see the mouth and the lines of the face.

Sandra Parshall said...

I scored a little higher, but I had to look closely at some of the eyes before I made a decision, and in a couple of cases I was way off-base. The interesting thing is that when psychologists have done similar tests using the whole face, some people still couldn't read the expression correctly.

JJM said...

19. Like Julia, I need more of the rest of the face -- and, preferably, the whole body. I'm not entirely sure how reading can improve one's ability to interpret purely visual signals, though.

I suspect part of the answer to the main question is that humans are the quintessential questioning animal: who? What? Why? ... And to explain something, you tell its story, even if you have to make it up. Why is the elephant's nose so long? Well, there once was a young elephant who met this crocodile ...

Leemarie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Leemarie said...

Fascinating post, Sandra. Any time I interject into my college lectures a "story" from my business or personal experience, I can feel the class lean forward and pay better attention. There's something innate in the human brain that is drawn to narrative. The scary thing is that so many young people are choosing not to read. Especially if that's where we learn compassion and empathy!