Something that has been on my mind a lot lately has been why the heck humans need stories so much. It’s universal for us as a species. Everyone seeks out stories in one way or another, whether that be going to the movies, catching up with friends, or in any other medium. Humans have been engaging stories for as long as the Earth can remember, for crying out loud!
But why is that?
Scientists and psychologists have delved into the part storytelling plays in the human experience and discovered stories help humans do a number of things. The two biggest themes I saw as I read through available research are as follows:
- Stories provide a mental training ground to practice social behaviors and plan situation response in a controlled environment (“The Secrets of Storytelling: Why We Love a Good Yarn” 2008).
- Stories help develop empathy for others.
I 100% agree with both of these, but for this post, I’m going to focus primarily on the second concept as well as add my own based on an experience I had recently:
3. Stories provide an emotional release that helps us cope with high-stress situations.
Stories help us develop empathy for others
Writer P.J. Manney in her article, “Empathy in the Time of Technology: How Storytelling is the Key to Empathy,” says, “…what makes literature such a potent brew is that we do not suffer these virtual travails in our own reality. We survive the vicarious experience, which might be devastating to us in reality, and emerge relatively unscathed, packing storytelling’s virtual punch.”
But why would something imagined or written on a piece of paper be such a “potent brew?”
Two words: mirror neurons.
Mirror neurons are “…a set of neurons in the premotor area of the brain that are activated not only when performing an action oneself, but also while observing someone else perform that action. It is believed mirror neurons increase an individual’s ability to understand the behaviors of others, an important skill in social species such as humans” (“Predicting the Future: Mirror Neurons Reflect the Intentions of Others” 2005).
In other words: “Monkey see, monkey do.”
When we see someone doing something or going through something, our mirror neurons help put us in the same place as that person and we are able to feel what they are feeling. Experience what they are experiencing. The same goes for when we engage in storytelling. We gain empathy for characters and their situation because our mirror neurons connect us to them and help us understand what it would be like in their place.
But here is the kicker.
Dr. Michael S. Franklin and Dr. Michael J. Zyphur in their paper, “The Role of Dreams in the Evolution of the Human Mind,” wrote: “Present neuroimaging data suggests that this ‘non-real’ information [stories], or information not tied to any current environmental stimuli, is treated in a similar fashion as information processed in a real physical environment.” (Emphasis added). Our brains, neurologically speaking, light up in the exact same way when we read stories as they would if we were in the same situation in real life. That is why it hurts so bad when our favorite characters die or we experience relief when the hero saves the day. We feel it as they feel it because our brains are react as if those experiences were real and our own.
Stories provide an emotional release that helps us cope with high-stress situations
Okay, so in order for me to show how this all connects, I need to give you backstory.
Something that stresses me out more than anything in this world is packing to move. My husband and I recently bought our first house and I nearly died from the pressure of zipping our life into boxes and hauling them to the new house. I’ve only had one other major move as an adult and I was so stressed about it, I broke out in hives from my face to my legs. This time, fortunately, I did not get hives, but instead I had crippling, anxiety-induced stomach pain for 10 days.
Amid all this, we had tickets to go and see Rise of Skywalker in theaters the day it came out. When the day arrived, the pain had gotten so bad I had contemplated not going in to work and no amount of medications had helped. Regardless, I was determined we weren’t going to miss the premiere of the next Star Wars.
So there I was, in the theater, stubbornly doubled over my stomach, praying the ginger ale I drank on the way to the theater would settle my stomach enough that I could enjoy the movie. The movie got started, and it sucked me into the whirlwind plot straight away. I was floored by the things the Resistance and Rey were going through. It seemed impossible that the Resistance would triumph over the expansive, nearly indestructible First Order, and I could not see how Rey was going to finish off the seemingly unkillable Emperor Palpatine.
My mirror neurons slammed me into Rey’s place. I imagined how she felt with the weight of the entire Jedi Order on her shoulders, the stress she must have felt while squaring up with both Kylo Ren and the Emperor. I felt the hopelessness of the Resistance when no one would come to their aid, their devastation as their comrades and allies died. But with all this came the realization that my own problems, namely packing to move houses, was nothing in comparison to what these characters were facing and required to do. I realized that if the Resistance could defeat the unconquerable First Order, and Rey could overthrow one of the most powerful Sith in Star Wars history, that I could move houses. Once that thought hit me, I realized my stomach pain was gone and I knew it wasn’t coming back.
Walking out of the movie with my husband, I talked to him about my revelation and the other possible contributing factors to my anxious stomach pain, and I discovered that I had stopped doing something key.
I had stopped working on my book.
In the past, I noticed that when I stop writing, my mental health slips the most, especially during situations of high stress. My husband helped me realize that part of the reason my stress got so out of hand was because I wasn’t engaging in storytelling and allowing myself the emotional release that comes with it. I believe this concept goes hand in hand with empathy.
My current work in progress is about a young woman surviving with her father and sister in a post-apocalyptic demon wasteland. Her main conflict forces her to come head to head with the fact that she develops powers similar to the demons and must figure out how she is going to use her power.
In the story so far, she has experienced demon attacks and subsequent severe physical and emotional trauma. What I didn’t know at the time, but do now, is that writing this book provided me a space to live through traumas and stresses way worse than my own, experience them in a low risk environment, and provide me with an emotional release that allowed me to handle my stress better in real life.
If I had known the effect of neglecting to engage in my story would have on my mental health while trying to move, I would never have dropped it. I needed to empathize with people who had bigger problems than me to put in perspective the insignificance of packing up our apartment. It would have helped me avoid more than a week’s worth of uncomfortable stomach pain and I probably would have had fewer emotional breakdowns.
At the end of the day, it is my belief that we all need a little storytelling. I hope that as I continue to pursue a career in novel writing that I can provide stories that can help people find the emotional release they are looking for and allow them to empathize with people that might have problems bigger than the ones here in the real world.
Now, this being said, I want to hear from you. What story or stories have impacted you on such a deep level they gave you a similar relief as I felt engaging in the lives of my characters and through the conflict of Rise of Skywalker? What story or stories have spoken to you in a way that it changed the way you viewed the world or felt about something?
Franklin, Michael S., and Michael J. Zyphur. “The Role of Dreams in the Evolution of the Human Mind.” Evolutionary Psychology, 2005, 59–78. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/147470490500300106.
Hsu, Jeremy. “The Secrets of Storytelling: Why We Love a Good Yarn.” The Secrets of Storytelling: Why We Love a Good Yarn. Scientific American, August 2008. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-secrets-of-storytelling/.
Iacoboni, M., I. Molnar-Szakacs, V. Vallese, G. Buccino, JC Mazziotta, and G. Rizzolatti. “Predicting the Future: Mirror Neurons Reflect the Intentions of Others.” PLOS Biology, February 22, 2005. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0030109.
Manney, PJ. “Empathy in the Time of Technology: How Storytelling Is the Key to Empathy.” Journal of Evolution and Technology 19, no. 1 (September 2008): 51–61. https://jetpress.org/v19/manney.htm.