Why do all human cultures create and pass on stories? We know that shared stories — histories — unite a people, just as a person’s life history unifies one’s many experiences into a coherent narrative and defines that person. But that’s only part of it.
Now we are learning that a shared story creates a connection much deeper than we ever suspected. Writing in Aeon Magazine, Elizabeth Svoboda tells us how neuroscience is uncovering how stories help us connect to other people:
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.
We already knew stories let us break through our normal limits, allowing us to transport ourselves into deep space, the deep sea, or life as it was lived thousands of years ago. But they also enable us to free ourselves of those most alienating and harmful barriers, the self-made blockades meant to protect, but which actually isolate us from other people.
So it’s not just entertainment, and it’s more than imparting valuable lessons. It’s a basic human need.
I often have trouble speaking in public and getting up the nerve to meet people. But at certain times in critique groups, open readings, or when I receive kind notes from readers, I feel I’ve shaken loose my usual inhibitions and fears and have managed to connect. It’s a wonderful feeling.