Exploring the power of stories in our lives, Elizabeth Svoboda explains that “we’ve known intuitively that stories alter our thinking and, in turn, the way we engage with the world,” but that recent research has “begun to shed light on how this transformation takes place from inside”:
Our mental response to story begins, as many learning processes do, with mimicry. In a 2010 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study, the psychologist Uri Hasson and his Princeton University colleagues had a graduate student tell an unrehearsed story while her brain was being scanned in an fMRI machine. Then they scanned the brains of 11 volunteers listening to a recording of the story. As the researchers analysed the data, they found some striking similarities. Just when the speaker’s brain lit up in the area of the insula – a region that governs empathy and moral sensibilities – the listeners’ insulae lit up, too. Listeners and speakers also showed parallel activation of the temporoparietal junction, which helps us imagine other people’s thoughts and emotions. In certain essential ways, then, stories help our brains map that of the storyteller.
What’s more, the stories we absorb seem to shape our thought processes in much the same way lived experience does. When the University of Southern California neuroscientist Mary Immordino-Yang told subjects a series of moving true stories, their brains revealed that they identified with the stories and characters on a visceral level. People reported strong waves of emotion as they listened – one story, for instance, was about a woman who invented a system of Tibetan Braille and taught it to blind children in Tibet. The fMRI data showed that emotion-driven responses to stories like these started in the brain stem, which governs basic physical functions, such as digestion and heartbeat. So when we read about a character facing a heart-wrenching situation, it’s perfectly natural for our own hearts to pound. ‘I can almost feel the physical sensations,’ one of Immordino-Yang’s subjects remarked after hearing one of the stories. ‘This one is like there’s a balloon under my sternum inflating and moving up and out. Which is my sign of something really touching.’