Saturday, May 26, 2012

Fiction is good for you and a defining characteristic of humanity

I ran across an interesting book at the library last week called The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall.

His research delves into our inherent love of stories. Our ability to express ourselves with narratives has allowed us to share ideas, relate events, illustrate philosophies, and teach lessons. I think most people agree that things are easier for us to remember when we hear it through a story. We naturally pay greater attention to stories because they engage us both intellectually and emotionally.

In The Storytelling Animal Gottschall presents findings from neuroscience studies. Brain scans are proving to be very illuminating in a number of fields, and Gottschall reported that when our minds experience fiction they light up like the individual is actually experiencing the action and feelings directly instead of indirectly. We empathize with the characters instead of sympathize because we feel what they are going through. This is why when I am immersed in a narrative (either fiction or nonfiction) the world around me drops away and I am transported into the details and feelings of the story. Gottschall described our capacity for experiencing fiction as a computer flight simulator in our brains. We can imagine a situation in great detail, feel what it will be like, and think about what the outcomes may be without actually risking ourselves through direct action. Hearing or reading the stories of other people also lets us experience events and feelings beyond our personal experiences. This expands our knowledge and our ability to cope with new things.

Gottschall wrote "Fiction is a powerful and ancient virtual reality technology that simulates the big dilemmas of human life."

As a fantasy author, I know that my fiction genre is typically described as escapist. This is true, but Gottschall makes the point that escapist fiction does not appear to be whisking us away to happy worlds of foot massages and rainbows. Fiction focuses on problems, sometimes huge horrific dangerous problems like zombies have taken over and want to eat your brains. The author proposes that we seek fiction as a way of exploring big scary problems and thinking and feeling about how we might deal with them.

Gottschall wrote "...if fiction offers escape, it is a bizarre sort of escape. Our various fictional worlds are -- on the whole -- horrorscapes. Fiction may temporarily free us from our troubles, but it does so by ensnaring us in new sets of troubles -- in imaginary worlds of struggle and stress and mortal woe."

I absolutely agree with him. These imaginary worlds of struggle and woe are so engaging for me as a writer and a reader. I want to think about what it would be like if I had to fight for my life. Or what it would feel like to be sold into slavery. Or what dealing with magical creatures might be like, and so on.

I found The Storytelling Animal to be both informative and validating. In chapter after chapter he shows how our entire species is hardwired for telling and enjoying stories. Experiencing things through our imaginations instead of only direct contact is a great human strength. Even when we sleep our dreams continue to generate experiences, and some of them are very intense.

Gottschall made the point that people really can't stand to be without stories. We like to hear them and we like to tell them. Throughout humanity's existence there have been people who were storytellers. They were a little better or at least more inclined to develop narratives for the enjoyment of others. Storytelling is natural to our species. We do it much more elaborately than a honeybee dancing out directions to some good flowers. Reading The Storytelling Animal let me know that I am not weird. Our species needs storytellers to feed the constant craving within all of us to experience feelings and challenges beyond our personal lives. Everyone wants to hear a story so some people have to step up and deliver.