Wonderworks: Literary invention and the science of stories
NEUROLOGICAL takes on art are fertile ground for a book. In 1999, neurobiologist Semir Zeki published Inner Vision, which explained how different schools of art affect us neurologically – put crudely, Rembrandt tickles one corner of the brain, Mondrian another. Eight years later, Oliver Sacks contributed to an already crowded music psychology shelf with Musicophilia, a collection of true tales in which neurological injuries and diseases are successfully treated with music.
Angus Fletcher believes the time has come for literature to get the neurological treatment too. Over the past decade, researchers have used pulse monitors, eye-trackers, brain scanners and other gadgets to look inside our heads as we consume novels, poems, films and comic books. Now these efforts are starting to bear fruit, as he sets out in Wonderworks.
Fletcher’s own experimental work includes a 2016 study into the psychological effects of “free indirect discourse”, a form of narrative that draws attention away from the narrator, instead slipping in and out of characters’ experiences and consciousness. Five literary texts that deal with revenge, including Homer’s Odyssey and Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, were presented in an adapted form to volunteer readers, sometimes as “straight“ stories and at other times written in free indirect discourse. The study found that readers of the latter tales not only offered more empathic responses to a follow-up questionnaire, they also showed a greater understanding of behaviours and moral choices they didn’t identify with.
The claim that reading novels improves theory of mind – the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes – has been circulating since the mid-2000s, and has been especially popularised by a team of psychologists at the University of Toronto headed by Keith Oatley. When we are very young, we assume that everyone thinks and feels as we do, but somewhere around our fourth birthday, most of us begin to realise that other people’s heads have their own distinct contents.
Our theory of mind develops as we imaginatively simulate other people’s thoughts. Since stories can present characters’ interiority, might this aid us as we practise and improve our real-life theory-of-mind skills? Research by Oatley and his colleagues has pointed in this direction. Other studies suggest that fiction readers are more social, that romance fiction can make us more empathetic and that fiction can increase the empathy of low-empathy individuals.
Defining technology as “any human-made thing that helps to solve a problem”, Fletcher now jumps several stages further, hypothesising that a story is a suite of narrative-emotional technologies that have helped our ancestors cope with the psychological challenges posed by human biology.
Wonderworks, then, is Fletcher’s scientific history of literature – each of its 25 chapters identifies a narrative “tool” that triggers a traceable, evidenced neurological outcome. Every tool comes with a goofy label: here you will encounter Butterfly Immersers (which push our sense of socially acceptable behaviour, calming the activity of the brain’s medial frontal gyrus) and Stress Transformers (which play on the shared neurological origins of horror and humour).
The book is an intelligent, engaged and erudite attempt to neurologically tackle not just some abstract and simplified “story”, but some of the world’s greatest narratives, from the Iliad to Dream of the Red Chamber, from Disney’s Up to the novels of Elena Ferrante. It speaks to the inner reader in us all, as well as to the inner neurologist.
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Read more at New Scientist