In troubling times we often wonder, “how did we get here?” Insults are hurled like weapons with the sole aim of destruction. Each shout of blame rarely sticks because there isn’t one thing to point to. In the moment, the blame game seems like a great idea but that just pulls us further apart.
So what can connect us?
Stories can connect us. They can transform us. They help us see a world, a perspective, a life that we do not know as our own. But most importantly they teach us.
Story consultant Lisa Cron explains, “Stories allow us to simulate intense experiences without actually having to live through them… Story evolved as a way to explore our own mind and the minds of others, as sort of dress rehearsal for the future”
When we read a story we are able to become part of a situation without having to brave that situation ourselves. Say for instance you watch your friend trip over a crack in the sidewalk. You now know to avoid that crack or at least be careful while walking over it. The age old wisdom, learn from your (others) mistakes, is true even for stories.
When a story begins, each reader is in the same place. On the first sentence of the page we are all in the shoes of the protagonist. Thus, if done well, we feel the emotions of the characters so vividly it is as if we are experiencing the moments ourselves. We begin to ask “what would I do in that situation” or “how would I feel if that happened to me”. The best part? We don’t even realize this is happening.
On a psychological level, stories activate parts of the brain that allow us to relate them to our own experiences. This is called neural coupling. We build empathy for that character and in turn we are more likely to understand others experiences.
Steven Pinker states, “Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them.”
When we close the last page of a book, digest the last line of a poem, or see the ending credits of a movie we develop a shared understanding with the characters. We have seen the world through their eyes allowing us to learn from their past.
That dopamine release your brain gets when you are entrenched in a story helps you remember. It allows you to hold on to the knowledge, values, mistakes, and emotions of the characters. You learn to empathize with those characters and are prepared for your own future experiences.
This is why stories are such great teachers (especially when a great teacher tells you one). They can teach us the importance of having friends who are different from us, how to cope with the death of a loved one, and even what to do if you’re a spy whose had their memories erased.
Stories are extremely important pieces of our social relationships. Those lines on the page can break down more barriers than insults will ever be able to. Philip Pullman once said, “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”
The best thing we can do is arm ourselves with the best teacher we will ever have, a good story.