Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Other People’s Lives

Sharon Wildwind

This past week on-line Scientific America had a report about research into the power of storytelling: http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=the-secrets-of-storytelling.

It seems, according to the scientists, that stories engage our brain in far more than just entertainment. What we feel and learn when engaged in listening to a story can influence what we believe and how we act in the “real world.” A steady exposure to stories about other people can form our values and help us develop and strengthen empathy.

Every culture tells stories, but the form of story varies greatly, depending on time and place. And, with the invention of things like the infomercial—a combination of story and advertising— and Matt Richtel’s new twiller—a thriller novel being written line-by-line on the social network, Twitter—we’ve managed to blur the lines between story and … well, take your choice.

No matter what the form, all good stories achieve what psychologists call a narrative transport. They sweep us up and take us along with their action. And it seems that the writer’s skill, while important, isn’t the only factor that makes a good story. People who have connection with story elements experience a greater sense of transport. If a reader has been to the place a story takes place, or knows someone similar to one of the characters, the story becomes more personal and more real for them.

This happens with both fiction and non-fiction. A biography or a news story can create transport in the same way that a short story or novel does. Part of what creates the “transport” is the ability of the writer/storyteller to craft. If we’d rather have dental work than listen to Uncle Gerald tell his snuck-in-a-snowstorm-on-Christmas-Eve one more time, chances are that Uncle Gerald hasn’t mastered transport yet. On the other hand, if we’d listen a hundred times to Aunt Eva’s story about meeting Lauren Bacall in the ladies’ room of the Plaza Hotel in New York City, then Aunt Eva’s “got it.”

Another essential component, empathy, lies not only in the writer but in the reader. Empathy is one of those gold nuggets of good story-telling. We use stories to learn to feel sympathy for what life is like for the other guy. We also use the imaginary world to explore options in our own lives.

One of the interesting things that neuroscientists are discovering is that the more a person reads well-crafted stories the more the parts of the brain responsible for empathy are stimulated. Contrary to popular belief, a person who spends a lot of time with books may have more, not fewer, social skills.

When I was a very inexperienced nurse, working in an emergency room, I played a game in my head called, “What would I do if …?” I would think of possible scenarios I might encounter in the ER and go over what I would do to respond. I’ve talked to other nurses who have done the same thing, and the interesting thing was that new nurses first focus on the hands on, physical things we would do. Where is this piece of equipment? What is the best drug for this emergency symptom? and so on.

The more experienced a nurse became, the more she or he dared to enter the murky questions of human emotions. How do I deliver bad news to a family member? What would I say to parents who have lost a child? How do I remain empathetic and non-judgmental when talking to a person who has a lifestyle that is different from my own?

What helped answer those questions? Stories. Not only the “My Most Difficult Patient” stories featured in nursing journals, but reading and reading and more reading. What was it like to be black? To be poor? To have a different gender orientation? To be the victim of abuse? To overcome hardship? To triumph against great odds? What helped in difficult situations? What didn't? It was all there in stories.

I hope that in this time of infomercials and Twitter-based novels that we aren't losing that ability to find empathy in story telling. If the world needs anything now, it's more empathy.

Writing quote for the week:

The literature of women’s lives is a tradition of escapees, women who have lived to tell the tale. They resist captivity. They get up and go. They seek better worlds.~Phyllis Rose, biographer


Julia Buckley said...

This seems valid to me, Sharon, because when I think back to the reading I remember, it's never the dry academic stuff, but the stories from books, or even word-of-mouth accounts that were so moving that people share them again and again.

And when I do plow through the difficult reading, like literary theory, I find the easiest parts to remember are when the theorist used an example that he put into anecdotal form.

Sandra Parshall said...

Most people seem to *need* stories, whether they come in the form of books, plays, TV programs, movies, or oral narratives. I think stories help us make sense of the world and other people -- and as far as we know, we're the only creatures who need this kind of help. (But who knows what animals are actually communicating to one another? Maybe humpback whales are telling tales in their famous "songs" and mother birds are spinning stories about their species for their nestlings.)

Just as stories help us develop empathy, though, I believe certain kinds of stories can feed hostility and a pessimistic view of other people. I've always thought that the sources of many childhood terrors are the classic children's stories in which kids are eaten by wolves, baked in ovens, and so forth. On the whole, something like "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie" might be a healthier sort of story for kids. :-)

Anonymous said...

Julia, I'm a big fan of anecdotal stories, too. Makes the text make so much more sense.

Sandra, one problem is that classic "children's" stories, particularly the European variety, were never intended for kids. We get them courtesy of the brothers Grimm, who had some recognition that they were moral tales for adults, and from the Walt Disney empire, who didn't understand that putting in a cute bunny or a musical score didn't automatically make a story appropriate for children.

Hansel and Gretel wasn't a cautionary tale for kids about not going wandering off into the woods alone. It was a tale for parents about not to LET their children go wandering off into the woods alone, and to widowed fathers not to remarry in haste.

As for what birds and animals are plotting, we have a murder of crows in our commons area that I'm convinced is plotting a governmental take-over. I just don't know if they're going to start at the city level or go straight to Ottawa. (grin)

Unknown said...

Great post, Sharon.
I don't have time to read the entire article right now, but definitely will.