The Power of Stories

Telling stories is the best way to teach, persuade, and even understand ourselves.

Only a Story? Not If Your Brain Has Its Way

Blame your brain when stories move you to real tears.

What happened the last time you read a novel or saw a film? Perhaps a mystery or something with vampires or a literary novel. You probably didn't think, at the time, about how your brain was playing tricks on you. You knew, of course, that the action in the story wasn't really happening, hadn't really happened, but your brain took liberties. And if the story was at all well told, you may have experienced real emotional arousal.

In a plain white cover that belies its wide-ranging and culturally rich content, Norman N. Holland's latest (16th) book, Literature and the Brain explores what we know about how our brains and minds react to the arts. Holland, also a PT blogger, goes beyond the concept of being transported by a work of art (being pulled into flow by it), and tackles the question of why we feel real emotions toward unreal things. Part of the explanation is that "when we enjoy a literary work fully, by being 'transported,' we turn off reality-testing." We (our brains) agree to suspend disbelief and let ourselves feel as though what we're reading or watching is real.

Researchers have found that when subjects are shown pictures, they feel the emotions that would be appropriate under those actual circumstances. This helps explain the seduction of drama, literature, and poetry. For instance, we enjoy tragedies, Holland points out, because "we bring them from representations of the direst threats outside us into our inner mental processing, and there we fit them into our schemas for understanding the world. By making sense of them, we tame them."

Highly recommended for those who create or respond to any of the arts.

The Power of Stories