Screenwriters and classical scholars are intimately familiar with the hero's journey, a narrative pattern that undergirds countless myths, folktales, and epic stories. In the traditional version, a hero ventures forth into unknown territory, slays enemies (literal or figurative), and returns with wisdom or gifts that improve the world. Books and films that closely follow the hero's journey model, such as Ender's Game and Star Wars, are considered modern classics. Generations of college students have plowed through Homer's Odyssey, its hero's-journey theme reflected in its title.
Tales of personal growth, selfless sacrifice, and triumph against great odds exert a powerful pull on us. But do the stories we absorb actually affect how we live our lives? Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a psychologist at the University of Southern California's Brain and Creativity Institute, believes moving narratives may shape our behavior by provoking visceral feelings of empathy and inspiration.
During the data-collection phase of her research, Immordino-Yang told study participants a series of inspiring stories—one, for instance, was about a poor Chinese child who offered his mother the last warm cake she had bought for him, even though he himself was starving. Then she observed her subjects' brains in a functional MRI scanner to see which areas were active as they processed the stories' content.
The scans showed that people were feeling physical pangs of emotion in response to what was happening in the stories. These sensations were often very concrete, and they were produced by brain areas that control basic bodily systems. So it makes perfect sense that when you hear about someone else in trouble, your chest clenches and your heart rate speeds up. “It isn't just metaphor when we say ‘gut-wrenching’ or ‘heart-wrenching,'” Immordino-Yang says. “It’s visceral in the most literal sense.” In other words, thoughts and physical sensations are more closely intertwined than we might have imagined.
As Immordino-Yang's subjects listened to the stories, they showed activation in the posteromedial cortex, an area that's involved in forming conceptions of the self. She concludes that when you hear about someone else undergoing a certain experience, your brain dredges around for similar experiences you’ve had in your own life—and that comparison helps you identify with the other person and understand what they're going through. (Young people tend to be less adept at making these connections, possibly because their brains’ databanks of experience aren’t as well-stocked as those of older people.)
It seems plausible that stories that awaken empathy in this way could inspire us to concrete moral action. Immordino-Yang says that when one of her subjects heard the story about the Chinese boy giving the last cake to his generous mother, he described feeling much more gratitude for what his own parents had done for him. In general, study participants who heard inspiring tales were flooded with feelings of moral motivation that weren't solely logical or rational; they were also rooted in the physical “gut reaction” they'd had to the stories.
Immordino-Yang is working with educators to explore how gut reactions could prompt students to consider the deep, universal issues within inspiring stories—the kind of contemplation that could ultimately lead them to take selfless or heroic action. “If you want to help people help others and be responsible citizens,” she says, “you need them to move beyond the physical. We need to encourage people to understand the situation, to appreciate the underlying implications.” From a moral standpoint, then, maybe it's important for gut-wrenching narratives like the Odyssey, Les Miserables, and Schindler's List to surface repeatedly in our thoughts—even if we can't predict exactly how they might influence our actions down the line.