Beyond the ability to hold an enthusiastic reader’s rapt attention or gain a bestseller’s widespread audience, stories have a power that most people take for granted. They contribute to the way we perceive and process our own experiences. Psychologists who study this power call it narrative psychology.
Narrative psychology is described as a burgeoning field of psychology because it is relatively new; the term was coined only thirty years ago. According to this field, humans deal with their own experiences by creating stories and by listening to the stories of others. In narrative psychology, a story is another word for the human experience.
Humans are attracted to stories. Long before publishing or writing existed, there was storytelling. The oral tradition saw stories recited out loud, spoken around a fire, performed in front of an audience, and shared across generations.
Our brains can process information better through narrative structure. One highly effective memory tool is known as the story method. It is possible to quickly memorize a random list of words if they are embedded in a made-up story. Conversely, information presented in the form of a story is easier to remember than if that information is simply put in a list.
It all has to do with the brain. When someone reads or hears a list of information presented without any narrative structure, the language processing centers activate; however, much more of the brain activates when someone processes information presented as a story. The story’s content is what activates these brain centers. If the story recalls the smell of a delicious feast or imagines other senses, the sensory cortex activates. If the story talks about falling down a hole or other movement, the motor cortex activates. If the story talks about the death of a loved one or other emotions, the amygdala activates. This widespread activation across the brain leaves a lasting effect. As we listen to stories, our brains activate according to the sensations and emotions in the story, and we effectively feel the events of the story for ourselves.
Telling and listening to stories helps us experience and reexperience things that happen to us and others. Narrative psychology uses storytelling as a part of therapy, which is why group therapy is often prescribed to veterans with PTSD. Telling their stories and hearing the stories of others helps promote understanding, which leads to healing and wisdom, allowing them to deal with their own trauma and grief after war.
But storytelling is not just for memorization or therapy. There are benefits to regularly reading stories in books, even if they are fantastic or not trauma based. Regular reading habits have long been correlated with increased performance in school and empathy. Reading stories is good for the brain and for our emotional well-being.
One of Ooligan Press’s forthcoming books,A Series of Small Maneuvers by Eliot Treichel, is a good example of narrative psychology at work. In the narrative, fifteen-year-old Emma suffers from guilt and grief over her father’s death. Much of the narrative itself is her retelling of the story, something that promotes her ability to emotionally process the tragedy. Following Emma’s experience, there is the potential for readers to process their own trauma and grief, and experiencing Emma’s pain in the narrative will promote empathy in readers.
With all stories, there is an important dialogue that takes place between the writer, the characters, the reader, and even the publisher. Stories of any kind are an important cultural contribution to human experience and human growth. As publishers, we at Ooligan strive to produce stories worth telling. Just the simple act of reading can help someone learn something new, while away several hours, or begin to comprehend their own experiences—stories have power.