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Neuroscience shows the brain is "wired for story"

Henry Bloomfield

Summer is the perfect time to dive into a good story. But did you know that stories are vital to the way the human brain learns? This week on “Take Care,” we talk to Lisa Cron, author of “Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence,” about the science behind storytelling.

Click 'Read More' to hear our interview with Lisa Cron.

Opposable thumbs were a big step in human evolution, but Cron argues that stories were too. As she says, opposable thumbs help us hold on, but stories tell us what to hold on to. Stories are a way to teach and learn.

“When you’re lost in a good story, it’s not arbitrary, it’s not pleasure for pleasure’s sake. It’s biological, it’s chemical, it’s a survival mechanism,” she said.

Cron says that stories help humans survive by acting as cautionary tales. For instance, a Neanderthal in the Stone Age sees berries and wants to eat them, but then he remembers hearing about his neighbor who ate a handful of those same berries and died. The Neanderthal decides not to eat the berries and lives. Without the story, he might not have survived.

A good story can cause the brain to release dopamine, Cron says, a neurotransmitter that can increase a person’s blood pressure and heart rate.

A powerful narrative is able to help readers gain empathy by relating to the protagonist, Cron says. It allows readers to step into the place of the protagonist and feel what they feel as they go through the story. It allows people to be more sympathetic to the situation.

“In life when we look at someone who's different from us and we say 'Look at that idiot. If I was in the same situation I would never do that.' But,” said Cron, “because we're reading it and now we feel what that character would feel like… you’re more rewired to put yourself in their shoes.”

Cron sites “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee as an example when readers gain empathy by relating to the protagonist. Cron argues that it was an important story that helped people view the “inhuman injustice of racism” through the eyes of Scout, a six-year-old white girl. She said the book made people come to action during the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s. In 1991, the Library of Congress asked 5,000 people which book made the biggest difference in their lives. “To Kill a Mockingbird” came in second behind only the Bible.

“Story or narrative takes those big ideas, abstract concepts, dry facts and translates them into something very specific that we can experience, and so feel, and that’s what tells us how we feel about it, what it means to us and that’s what moves us to action,” Cron says.