It’s election season, which got me to thinking about the unparalleled power of story. Here’s the scary thing: story is much stronger than the power of facts when it comes to motivating us. But because story can seem like “mere” entertainment, we often miss the effect it has. So, here’s something it helps to keep in mind whether you’re writing a story or, just as important, reading, watching or listening to one: Whether we’re aware of it or not, once a story engages us emotionally, our analytical brain shuts off, and our cognitive unconscious viscerally absorbs it, the better to experience it as if it were happening to us.
Truth is, most of the time, we have no clue of its real effect on us. In Tell to Win, author Peter Guber likens a story to a Trojan horse, saying that “stories emotionally transport an audience so they don’t even realize they’re receiving a hidden message.”
Why are we so easily captivated? Because biologically, when our love of story evolved, it served a necessary purpose, and there was no major downside. It’s just like how we evolved to crave sugar, fat and salt. They were rare, we needed them to survive. Now, with a Micky Ds on every corner, they’re abundant. Yet we have no way to turn off our biological craving for them – a craving that whispers, “Eat up now, tomorrow there might be a big fat famine.”
So what is the survival benefit to being able to get lost in a story? Neuroscientists believe the reason our already overloaded brain is wired to devote so much precious time and space to letting us to get lost in a story is that without stories, we’d be toast. Stories allow us to simulate intense experiences without actually having to live through them. We get to sit back and vicariously experience someone else suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, the better to learn how to dodge those darts should they ever be aimed at us.
This was a matter of life and death back in the Stone Age, when if you waited for experience to teach you that the rustling in the bushes was actually a lion looking for lunch, you’d end up the main course. It’s even more crucial now, because once we mastered the physical world, our brain evolved to tackle something far trickier: the social realm. Story evolved as a way to explore our own mind and the minds of others (what’s he really thinking?), as a sort of dress rehearsal for the future. As a result, story helps us survive not only in the life-and-death physical sense but also in a life-well-lived social sense.
In fact, the pleasure we derive from a tale well told isn’t ephemeral, it’s a dollop of dopamine – think of it as nature’s way of seducing us into paying attention to it.
The good news is that most of the time stories do a whole lot of good. They can broaden our horizon, take us deeper into the human condition, and make us more empathetic, more alive. But, especially now, it’s important to be aware of the fact that story is just as potent in the hands of advertisers, politicians and televangelists. In fact, it’s often more so – because they have a very clear agenda, and their stories are well crafted with a very specific call to action in mind. Sometimes following their call to action really does help us. Then again, sometimes it sends us to Micky Ds with the heartfelt belief that chowing down on a Big Mac at midnight is not only good for us, but something we deserve, damn it!
Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “buyer beware” doesn’t it?