Where science and story meet

The spirit of C. P. Snow lives on. Robert A. Burton, a neurologist and novelist, shares his insights into just how closely science and literature dovetail in the human psyche:

Science is in the business of making up stories called hypotheses and testing them, then trying its best to make up better ones. Thought-experiments can be compared to storytelling exercises using well-known characters. What would Sherlock Holmes do if he found a body suspended in a tree with a note strapped to its ankle? What would a light ray being bounced between two mirrors look like to an observer sitting on a train? Once done with their story, scientists go to the lab to test it; writers call editors to see if they will buy it.

Of course. Both disciplines aim to shed light on some aspect of reality. And when we make connections between events that deepen our understanding of related events, we feel that sweet twinge of discovery, whether in the role of author or reader. In fact, science now informs us that when we successfully recognize patterns, we get a dopamine reward. And we really, really like our dopamine, so much, in fact, that we tend to cling to reassuring stories long after science has superseded them with better, more robust stories. As Dr. Burton explains:

People and science are like bread and butter. We are hardwired to need stories; science has storytelling buried deep in its nature. But there is also a problem. We can get our dopamine reward, and walk away with a story in hand, before science has finished testing it. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the brain, hungry for its pattern-matching dopamine reward, overlooks contradictory or conflicting information whenever possible.

After all, what is religion other than the insightful blending of science and literature? As science uncovers more truths about ourselves and the universe, the storyteller’s job is to imagine new stories that make sense of new information, turning mere data into insight and wisdom.