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How humans are "wired for story"

Humans are different from other mammals in many ways, but scientific evidence shows that one of the greatest distinctions is that the human brain is hard-wired to learn through storytelling. Lorraine Rapp and Linda Lowen, hosts of WRVO's health and wellness show "Take Care," spoke to writer Lisa Cron who wrote a book on why people crave and need stories.

Lorraine Rapp: Anyone who has taken a class on human evolution knows that opposable thumbs are a big deal. But you say that story was crucial to our evolution. And you wrote, "opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to." What's the supporting science?

Lisa Cron: Story is what allows us to envision the future, so plan for that thing we're still the most frightened of, the unexpected. Stories are simulations, are what scientists think. Stories are simulations that allow us to experience difficult problems to see what it would be like if we found ourselves in that situation. Like, I see those berries over there and they look delicious and I'm starving and did I mention it's the Stone Age so I can't buy something and take it home and nuke it? But I heard this story about the Neanderthal next door who chowed down on a couple of handfuls and the way they said he was writhing on the ground and foaming at the mouth before he died -- I mean, he died that should be enough -- but it sounded really painful, too. So I think I'll forgo the berries and make due with a couple of cold beetles and live to see the dawn. In other words, story was so seminal, it was so crucial to our survival that nature found a way to make it pleasurable so we'd pay attention and not eat the red berries. And the big takeaway here is that great feeling you get 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. It's dopamine. It's your brain's way of encouraging you to follow your curiosity so you find out how the story ends and you don't eat the red berries and survive.

Lorraine Rapp: You cite a study from Creative Research Journal that indicates that a powerful story can have a hand in rewriting the reader's brain and help instill empathy. How does that work?

Lisa Cron: When you get lost in a story, you are actually there. The same areas of your brain light up as they would if you were doing what that main character is doing. 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 when we are in that situation, because we're reading it and now we feel what that character would feel like. You're reading and you're like, "Oh that's very different. That is not at all what I expected. That person might even be more like me." And so, literally, you're more rewired to put yourself in their shoes, to feel what they're feeling and how that affects you as a person.

Linda Lowen: You point out that people would much prefer to read fiction than non-fiction literature, saying that we get this empathy, we get this feeling from relating to the protagonist, and that it can be life-changing. One of the things you cite is a novel that was really critical for the success of civil rights in the 1960s. What novel was that?

Lisa Cron: Absolutely, it was "To Kill a Mockingbird" and it was widely cited as changing the way the nation viewed the inhuman injustice of racism simply by giving them a glimpse of it through the eyes of a six-year-old white girl, Scout. In 1991, the Library of Congress Center for the Book found that "To Kill a Mockingbird" came in second, only behind the Bible, as books most often making a difference. 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.

More of this interview can be heard on "Take Care," WRVO's health and wellness show, Sunday at 6:30 p.m.  Support for this story comes from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.