And now the scientists are proving this to be more true than we realize. A Scientific American article titled In the Minds of Others dives into the impact of stories on our brains, on how we relate to others, and how they help us become more empathetic, open and social creatures.
Bookworms around the world rejoice!
A couple of quotes that caught my eye:
"We do not actually experience the character’s emotions—after all, the character is an abstraction. Rather we feel our own emotions in response to the yearnings, actions and circumstances the writer describes. The trajectory of these emotions keeps us turning the pages or glued to the screen."
"As with all good literature, Chekhov’s story prompted people to think and feel in new ways, but the particular feelings and thoughts it evoked depended on the reader."
At last! A scientific explanation for how to hook readers! Seriously, this fascinates me, because it taps into the very real experience that readers have of being immersed in the story, while explaining how each person's experience of the story remains their own, flavored by the life-story that they bring to the pages.
This is the best reason I can think of to use SHOW and not TELL in a story. By showing the character's actions (and thoughts), by having them interact with your fictional world - push and pull, tug and release - the reader's brain literally experiences those same actions. When the character leaps off the train, if you've done your job as a writer, the reader feels the rush, the wind whistling in their ears and the heart stopping moment before you know what will happen next. Whether this thrills or terrifies them remains the piece of the puzzle that the reader brings to the story.
In one way, many children of today are cloistered in closed environments. Risk averse schools remove hazardous playground equipment. Protective parents shuttle their children to school and back. Kids wear bike helmets and ride in car seats and don't have many opportunities to experience any real risks, much less heart-stopping adventure. I'm not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, being one of those over-protective parents myself. And despite all my over-protectiveness, Mighty Mite recently managed to bash his head against a dumpster and bleed all over a friend's kitchen. I'm starting to wonder if the boy needs a helmet full-time.
But in another way, children of today are immersed in stories even more than children of the past. I grew up with after-school TV shows, the occasional movie, and books, books, books. Kids today have all that, plus the internet, highly interactive games, and even newspaper and non-fiction reporting that are increasingly taking narrative form. They are awash in stories, often in ways that make them a star player as it unfolds.
I can't help but wonder what this is doing to their brains. According to the scientists, that virtual experience of narrative worlds - through reading or other storytelling - expands their horizons, makes them open to new experiences, and helps them empathize with people who are intrinsically different than themselves by stepping into their heads for the duration of the story.
Stories truly are equipment for living, and for children, they are an essential tool for growing up by letting them experience people, places and feelings outside the realm of their own experience.
I just hope Mighty Mite doesn't decide to jump off a train next.