Author Topic: The Power Of Fiction  (Read 228 times)

Offline Althulas

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The Power Of Fiction
« on: Saturday 27, 2018, 02: pm »

“We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel – or have done and thought and felt; or might do and think and feel – is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become… A person who had never listened to nor read a tale or myth or parable or story, would remain ignorant of his own emotional and spiritual heights and depths, would not know quite fully what it is to be human. For the story – from Rumpelstiltskin to War and Peace – is one of the basic tools invented by the mind of man, for the purpose of gaining understanding. There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”Ursula K. Le Guin, The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction

This comment made by Le Guin in Language of the Night tells of a truth that I think many authors don’t think about. Oh, all admit to the power of words, but they never seem to see the power of their words. The effect that they can and do have upon another's life. And I want to talk about it because I feel, not only as a writer but as an aware reader, that it is important for authors new and experienced alike to know, to understand the words they put out there.

In many ways it goes beyond just being politically correct or even responsible, but instead goes into a place most writers I think fear - a place of understanding that as a writer you have a power that is as great as any world leader - you in your comfy chair, high on coffee and dreams are and can change a life not your own with a single paragraph. Now that is power and a power that needs to be used wisely.

Now you may think that I am being a little pedantic, trust me I am not. What Le Guin spoke of in the quote above has been scientifically proven by more than one set of people so I am personally inclined to think that they are at least onto something...

The Power of Fiction

To fully understand the power of fiction I am going to go way back, back to the very start of it all (as far as we can tell).

As Fantasy writer by heart, I have spent some time looking back and finding out how the genre started because it is by far the oldest form of fiction. As long as well have been, we (humans) have been telling tales of monsters and the heroes that fight them.

It all starts with Mythology, from the Greek ‘mythos’ meaning story-of-the-people, and ‘logos’ for word or speech, the spoken story of a people, is a collection of often sacred tales or fables of a culture that deal with being human. Good, evil, our origins, life, death, the afterlife, the underworld, and the gods. Whatever the subject, myths have been used to warn of dangerous we did not yet understand, to speak of morality and to help us remember our histories and the beliefs and values held by a culture or a people.

We have since the dawn of time passed down information about our lives and cultures through tales and fables (you have to admit they are more interesting than boring old history) and it has left a mark upon us as a race. We are now hardwired to learn information better when shown it in a story like form -

“The "human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor," says Jonathan Haidt. Certainly, we use logic inside stories better than we do outside. Leda Cosmides and John Tooby have shown that the Wason Selection Test can be solved by fewer than 10% as a logic puzzle, but by 70-90% when presented as a story involving detection of social-rule cheating. “
- It Is in Our Nature to Need Stories

“Nature shaped us to be ultra-social, and hence to be sharply attentive to character and plot. We are adapted to physiologically interact with stories. They are a key way in which our ruly culture configures our nature.”
- It Is in Our Nature to Need Stories

“So powerful is our impulse to detect story patterns that we see them even when they're not there.

In a landmark 1944 study, 34 humans – Massachusetts college students actually, though subsequent research suggests they could have been just about anyone – were shown a short film and asked what was happening in it. The film showed two triangles and a circle moving across a two-dimensional surface. The only other object on screen was a stationary rectangle, partially open on one side.

Only one of the test subjects saw this scene for what it was: geometric shapes moving across a plane. Everyone else came up with elaborate narratives to explain what the movements were about.”
- The Art of Immersion: Why Do We Tell Stories?

The above extracts show that as humans we need stories to understand the world around us; to the point where we create our own narrative if one is not supplied. Stories are what we use to decode our society, our cultures and our religions. They are as important to the fabric of our world as economics, technology or anything else that you might think of.

Now you might think that this only works when used in terms of age-old tales or ones that are connected to your specific culture and it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with your current WIP. Well... no. It is a function of our brains to connect with and internalize the events of a story -

“It is quiet and dark. The theatre is hushed. James Bond skirts along the edge of a building as his enemy takes aim. Here in the audience, heart rates increase and palms sweat.  I know this to be true because instead of enjoying the movie myself, I am measuring the brain activity of a dozen viewers. For me, excitement has a different source: I am watching an amazing neural ballet in which a storyline changes the activity of people’s brains... As social creatures, we depend on others for our survival and happiness. A decade ago, my lab discovered that a neurochemical called oxytocin is a key “it’s safe to approach others” signal in the brain... More recently my lab wondered if we could “hack” the oxytocin system to motivate people to engage in cooperative behaviours.

To do this, we tested if narratives shot on video, rather than face-to-face interactions, would cause the brain to make oxytocin. By taking blood draws before and after the narrative, we found that character-driven stories do consistently cause oxytocin synthesis. “
- Why Your Brian Loves Good Storytelling

So when you write that likeable character and your readers report back to you a “connection” they are literally feeling an emotional connection to that character. Not only that but due to the nature of oxytonic we feel a level of trust with that character and in turn that trust goes to the author because when engaged with a story we are placing ourselves in your hands. Quite literally in many ways because what we read stays with us. We are allowing you to change us with every page we read -

“...a story must first sustain attention – a scarce resource in the brain – by developing tension during the narrative. If the story is able to create that tension then it is likely that attentive viewers/listeners will come to share the emotions of the characters in it, and after it ends, likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviours of those characters.”
- Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling

The chemicals involved in our feelings towards stories goes further still when talking about a certain alcoholic drinks ad this was said about the effects of a well-developed story has on a person -

“Storytelling evokes a strong neurological response. Neuroeconomist Paul Zak‘s research indicates that our brains produce the stress hormone cortisol during the tense moments in a story, which allows us to focus, while the cute factor of the animals releases oxytocin, the feel-good chemical that promotes connection and empathy. Other neurological research tells us that a happy ending to a story triggers the limbic system, our brain’s reward centre, to release dopamine which makes us feel more hopeful and optimistic.”
- The Irresistible Power of Storytelling as a Strategic Business Tool

In effect, you are drugging us (admittedly with our permission) but still... we are hooked, people who say they can’t put a book down quite possibly can’t. I know that I am in many ways addicted to the feeling that comes with reading a really well-told story. It is why I read... I always want to experience that feeling again and again and yet again. But when see beyond just as a reasoning for how we feel about books and movies or any sort of storytelling medium we realise that our very systems are causing us to be open, receptive, trustful and then pleased by what you are saying and it doesn’t matter much what form it is in. It can be a non-fiction story or the most ridiculous of fantasies.

On we go further down the rabbit hole, not only do we react on a chemical level to the stories we are told we react on all levels to the story that we are being told. What the character feels, we feel (in a way) -

“When we tell stories to others that have helped us shape our thinking and way of life, we can have the same effect on them too. The brains of the person telling a story and listening to it, can synchronize, says Uri Hasson from Princeton:

“... the volunteers understood her story, and their brains synchronized.  When she had activity in her insula, an emotional brain region, the listeners did too.  When her frontal cortex lit up, so did theirs. By simply telling a story, the woman could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains. Anything you’ve experienced, you can get others to experience the same. Or at least, get their brain areas active, too:

” - The Science of Storytelling: What Listening to a Story Does to Our Brains

Beyond that, if deep enough into a story we become a part of that story -

“A story is immersive when it effectively induces a deictic shift, which is the moment when you assume a viewpoint of one of the characters of the story, and you forget yourself. They’ve done MRI scans on the brains of people watching movies and they say cinema is the closest we get to dreaming with our eyes open. The lateral prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for self-awareness, it goes dim. You forget your body, the theatre, your chair. The mind is free from the confines of the body, and that is when you enter the liminal trance state.”
- Curating Awe In A World Of Endless Miracles

Or... -

“...But it’s also worth pointing out which brain areas didn’t “tick together” in the movie theatre. The most notable of these “non-synchronous” regions in the prefrontal cortex, an area associated with logic, deliberative analysis, and self-awareness. (It carries a hefty computational burden.) Subsequent work by Malach and colleagues has found that when we’re engaged in intense “sensorimotor processing” – and nothing is more intense than staring at a massive screen with Dolby surround sound – we actually inhibit these prefrontal areas. The scientists argue that such “inactivation” allows us to lose ourself in the movie:

Our results show a clear segregation between regions engaged during self-related introspective processes and cortical regions involved in sensorimotor processing. Furthermore, self-related regions were inhibited during sensorimotor processing. Thus, the common idiom ”losing yourself in the act” receives here a clear neurophysiological underpinnings.”
- The Frontal Cortex, Watching Movies, Science Blogs.

To summarise my point - we are designed, created, have become wired to be open and receptive to the emotive moments and habits of the characters within the stories we read, see or hear. Not only that but when we become engaged we are assuming a role within the story. We are, in the moment of reading, actively open to the idea, ideals, thoughts, feelings and emotions presented in the work we are reading.

This means, that as writers we need to keep that in mind. We can’t say that the effects will fade, or that it doesn’t matter because what we read today, what we grow up reading effects us and stays with us. Who reading this hasn’t read at least one book they know was life-changing?

But the truth is that every book is live changing whether it consciously stays with you or not. So there is no escape from the reality of the power that Fiction holds.

Our words will affect the future of the world as each person takes the effects of what they read out into the world. And that is both a very scary thought and one that gives me hope for the future because storytelling can be used to allow a more loving, generous, kind and empathetic side of people to show. It lowers our guards and allows us to let others in, to see and understand their lives.

As writers we have a responsibility, no, a moral right, to make sure that what we put into our work is something that can make this world better and the future brighter. Anything else will be an abuse of the power that we have chosen to take up. We are storytellers... let us be great ones that have left this world in a better shape than how we found it, one reader, at a time.

Now I leave you with a single question :

How will what you say affect the world?
« Last Edit: Saturday 27, 2018, 02: pm by Althulas »
“Fable has strong shoulders that carry far more truth than fact can.”
― Barry Hughart, Bridge of Birds

Barry HughartBarry Hughart > Quotes

Barry Hughart quotes (showing 1-30 of 46)
“Error can point the way to truth, while empty-headedness can only lead to more empty-headedness or to a career in politics.”
― Barry Hughart, Bridge of Birds

“When love is involved no sacrifice is too great.”
― David Eddings

“It's only a story, isn't it?"...
"Who's to say what's only a story and what's truth disguised as a story?”
― David Eddings, Pawn of Prophecy

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