Scientists Study Why Stories Exist

Scientists Study Why Stories Exist

Wall Street Journal (New York, NY), April 4, 2014


We human beings spend hours each day telling and hearing stories. We always have.


At a fascinating workshop at Stanford last month called “The Science of Stories” scientists and scholars talked about why reading Harlequin romances may make you more empathetic, about how ten-year-olds create the fantastic fictional worlds called “paracosms”, and about the subtle psychological inferences in the great Chinese novel, the Story of the Stone.

One of the most interesting and surprising results came from the neuroscientist Uri Hasson at Princeton. He’s investigating how brains respond to stories. When different people watched the same vivid story as they lay in the scanner, their brain activity unfolded in a remarkably similar way.

In another experiment they recorded the pattern of one person’s brain activity as she told a vivid personal story. Then someone else listened to the story on tape and they recorded his brain activity. Again, there was a remarkable degree of correlation between the two brain patterns. The storyteller had literally gotten in to the listener’s brain and altered it in predictable ways. But more than that, she had made the listener’s brain match her own brain.

The more tightly coupled the brains became, the more the listener said that he understood the story. This coupling effect disappeared if you scrambled the sentences in the story. There was something about the literary coherence of the tale that seemed to do the work.

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