How stories wake up our senses and rouse our emotions

While our brains are awfully clever, they’re not always good at distinguishing between reality and fiction. That’s why books hit us so powerfully.

According to this fascinating article by Anne Murphy Paul, certain words like “cinnamon” activate parts of the brain that deal with language processing and also those devoted with smells:

“In a study subjects in their laboratory read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex, responsible for perceiving texture through touch, became active. Metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex, while phrases matched for meaning, like “The singer had a pleasing voice” and “He had strong hands,” did not.”

Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto (and a published novelist), says the rich details found in literature – the sights, the smells and sounds – are experienced like reality by readers. You can read his fascinating blog on the psychology of fiction here.

And, while there is much more to be learned and understood, it seems that reading fiction might also change our brain’s ability to be empathic. That is, reading fiction and the development of empathy, the ability to infer how someone else is feeling, might be linked.

In a study, reported on by Oatley in his blog, people who said they were engaged or “transported” into fictional worlds performed better at a task of guessing the mental state of another person. Reading children’s storybooks with children, or watching movies with stories, might also help children develop the capacity to “feel and understand the emotions of others.”

This research is new to me. But having produced E and E – or education and entertainment – radio dramas in Africa, none of it seems surprising. The idea behind E and E is to tell stories (in my experience, via the radio) that influence people’s actions and bring about positive social change. Listeners ‘live’ vicariously through a character they identify with and connect with on some level emotionally in the radio drama series. They begin to guess at the motives behind the character’s actions, and even to think through the implications of taking one action over another in their minds. They see how a character trying out a new behaviour (such as asking partners to wear a condom when they have sex) works for them. After ‘living’ the experience through the character, listeners might take the next step and try it out for themselves.

Stories give our brains whole new worlds to occupy, test and experience – so no wonder they’re so potentially powerful and transformational.