The need for narrative (and the science that proves it)

Ashley Wurzbacher

Feb 18, 2012

Since its publication in Sunday's New York Times, Annie Murphy Paul's "Your Brain on Fiction" has gone viral among my friends and fellow writers. If you haven't read it yet, you can find it here. In the piece, Paul calls attention to research into the way that "stories½stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life," drawing on various neurological studies that illustrate the ways in which fiction socializes us and hones our ability to empathize with others. As Paul points out, "The brain½does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated." Furthermore, fiction (and the novel form, in particular) affords us "the opportunity to enter fully into other people's thoughts and feelings." All of this might seem obvious to avid readers and writers. I take these things for granted and have never felt any pressing need to verify their truth through science. So many times new things that happen to me are accompanied by a strange feeling of déjà vu, as if I've experienced the thing already. I think and think about where and when it happened; I run through scenes of my life and try to locate the origin of the vague familiarity I feel, and then I realize the thing never happened to me at all, but was something I read about, something I lived vicariously through a fictional character. Or I meet someone new and find that they remind me of someone, though I can't place who, and then I realize it's a fictional character who's been summoned by my new acquaintance, the memory of someone I spent time with in story, though never in reality. My experience of fiction colors my vision of the physical world and the people I encounter in it; it helps me better understand where I am and who I'm here with. And I've always taken it for granted, too, that my writing and reading of fiction invite (indeed, require) me to "put myself in others' shoes," as they say, more often and more adeptly than I would if I did not frequently read and write. Paul is certainly not the first to make the case that reading and writing do good things for the brain and for humanity in general; most writers and avid readers are rather firmly committed to the idea that literature makes people better. Many, too, accept and treasure the notion that humans are hard-wired to construct and internalize narratives. For instance, in his craft book The Half-Known World: On Writing Fiction, Robert Boswell suggests that "we may well be narrative beasts down to our very genes, which means that story has been selected for, that it is in the most profound sense necessary." (60) So, what's so special about Annie Murphy Paul's piece? For one thing, it's that she exposes the science behind what writers and readers have always felt to be true in a way that I found gratifying. As she herself puts it, "Reading great literature, it has long been averred, enlarges and improves us as human beings. Brain science shows this claim is truer than we imagined." But Paul's piece does more than just vindicate writers who want to believe in the value of the stuff they're producing. It's one thing for me, personally, to feel good upon reading an article that suggests that I haven't thrown my life away, after all, by devoting myself to professional reading and professional making-stuff-up, that there is indeed a biological benefit and a social use for what I do. But it's another thing for Paul's article to reach out to the broad audience of New York Times readers with scientific data that is more likely to persuade them of the need for narrative than any of my own vague humanist musings. I pass this article on not only because it confirms what I--and presumably the rest of us here at Gulf Coast and in writing programs everywhere--have always felt about the need for and value of fiction, but because Paul's grounding of this argument in neuroscience makes it more persuasive to audiences who might be more skeptical of fiction's importance to their lives and minds. I hope you'll pass it on, too.