Nancy: How Story Shapes Our Brains

How long did the last fiction book you finished stick with you? What about the romance or mystery or classic you read over and over again as a teen? How about the books your parents read to you before you were old enough to read on your own? Turns out, the fiction we read might just be making us more engaged, empathetic humans according to researchers studying the brain through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). We’ve known this for a while now.

In a New York Times article published more than five years ago, Annie Murphy Paul reported: “The brain, it seems, does 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…Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality to give readers an experience unavailable off the page: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.” Wow, heady stuff, you authors out there.

I’ve been pondering the power of story a lot lately as I’ve realized just how many of my foundational beliefs have their roots in Dr. Seuss stories. I have very clear memories of dragging my hard cover book of Fox in Socks with me everywhere I went for some period of time when I was around four years old. Because I had the great privilege of visiting the library often (thank you, Mom!), I can’t remember how many other Dr. Seuss books I owned versus borrowed. And because I was too young to make the connection between Dr. Seuss TV specials, which were a VERY BIG DEAL back in the days before internet access to content, DVRs/VCRs, and even before cable TV itself, I can’t be sure which stories I absorbed through that medium.

What I do know is that my three all-time favorite Seuss stories say a lot about what is important to me.

This star-bellied sneetch watches over me from a shelf in my office.

The Sneetches takes top billing in my list. In the story, some sneetches have green stars on their bellies, some don’t. The star-bellied sneetches decide they are the superior beings and treat the starless sneetches badly. An enterprising capitalist shows up with a machine to put stars on the bellies of the starless. Still wanting to discriminate, the starred sneetches have their stars removed. The frenzy of starring and unstarring continues until the sneetches are out of money and they are no longer sure who originally had a star and who didn’t. They realize that underneath bellies with or without stars, they’re all sneetches.

Quoting from Wikipedia, this story “…was intended by Seuss as a satire of discrimination between races and cultures, and was specifically inspired by his opposition to antisemitism.” When I saw The Sneetches (because I have a very clear memory of watching the story on TV), I  thought they were the most adorable things I’d ever seen, and I was thrilled when they all became friends in the end, regardless of their differences. Did I relate it to differences between races and cultures and denegration of the ‘other’ at that time in my life? Doubtful. But it did make perfect sense to me to care more about how a person acts and treats others than how s/he looks.

The second story on my Seuss greatest hits list is The Lorax. Seuss fans will remember this woodland creature’s famous line, “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues”, when confronting the Once-ler creature who has stumbled upon the Lorax’s beautiful forest ecosystem and begun mindlessly thwacking down the trees to make needless stuff out of their colorful tufts. The first time I heard the Lorax’s sad tale of a destroyed forest, misplaced and possibly dying forest critters, and unchecked pollution, all borne of greed, a tree hugger was born.

Rounding out the top three is Yertle the Turtle. Yertle, king of the turtles, demands the other turtles stack themselves up so he can sit on top of them and see out over the world. Problem is, the other turtles are being crushed and living in misery. Mack, he turtle at the bottom of the pile begs the king to let them go, but the king ignores his request multiple times. In the end, Mack burps, which disrupts the pile and sends Yertle hurtling into the mud. The story ends with these lines: “Yertle, that marvelous he, is King of the Mud. That’s all he can see. And the turtles of course, all the turtles are free, as turtles, and maybe all creatures should be.” The message is pretty simple: those at the top with an undue share of power have no right to crush those underneath them.

If you’re why I’ve been musing about Dr. Seuss stories, it’s because I find my mind flashing back to these fun stories and their deep lessons a lot these days. Some of the scariest things happening in the US right now involve removing environmental protections, demonizing ‘the other’, and proposing policies to widen the inequality between those at the very top and everyone else. When I hear something that seems truly craven to me, I can’t help wondering if the legislators taking these stances never read Dr. Seuss, if their brains were deprived of the important messages that got hard-wired into mine at such an early age.

Like so many creatives these days, when events of the day become too much, I take solace in my work. I’ve always been an active participant in my country’s democracy (to the point that I raised a daughter who has gone into politics), and I’m more engaged than ever now. But some days are hard. Change is slow and seems like it might never come. The tide is high over our heads and just might drown us. When I’m in a particularly bad place, I sit at my keyboard, dig deep, and reach for honest things to say in my stories that I hope will resonate with readers. I’m putting my beliefs, truths, and hopes on the page, not in a didactic treatise, but in the thoughts, words, and actions of my characters.

The majority of the world’s most influential figures can point to books that helped shaped their world views. Harper Lee’s seminal novel To Kill a Mockingbird is credited with advancing the civil rights movement. Dr. Seuss taught one kid (and no doubt countless more) from a very homogeneous, sheltered world to believe in the equality and inherent worth of all people, no matter their differences. Your book could influence minds and hearts in ways you can’t even imagine. Write on, friends, write on.

“Things that feel impossible now are possible…Things will change…What we write in this room creates conditions for that change, the conditions that will change hearts and minds.” – Donald Maass, presenter, WU Un-Conference 2016

Anyone else tending toward overwhelmed these days? If so, how are you coping? Are you able to take solace in story, either making or consuming it?

6 thoughts on “Nancy: How Story Shapes Our Brains

  1. Excellent. I wonder which stories really shaped my psyche. (-: I did adore Fox in Socks, where I learned that being a silver-tongued talker is a valuable skill. To some extent, that’s what I took away from Green Eggs and Ham, too. (That and, “Try it. You might like it.”)

    I do want to add a note of caution — if your writing is going into non-PC territory, or in a direction that you are uncomfortable with, I think it’s important to write it out, anyway. Sure, soul-search and figure out what’s bothering you, but don’t try to censor your muses, or try to prod them to write to an agenda (even a really worthy one). I think that path leads to writer’s block or some really unfelt fiction.

    One thing that really bothers me in this day and age is that there is so much polarization — some people think guns are a good and true right, others would like to ban them completely. Some think LGBT communities are the bees knees, others would like to ban them completely. Some positions I find completely incomprehensible, and it’s entirely possible my subconscious might lead me to an understanding through writing. If I let them.

    • I know it’s memoir and not fiction, but I’ve added Hillbilly Elegy to my TBR pile. I hope to gain some empathy for people’s whose viewpoints and politics make no sense to me, despite having grown up in an area with a fair share of people with this life experience/outlook. I wrote in some posts earlier in the year that I was struggling with empathy for people who were taking certain political position. As things grow bleaker and murkier in the DC swamp, I’m struggling now more than ever. So, yeah, I need a boost of empathy here, and reading might just be one way to find it.

      • Forty-eight percent of people who bother to vote can’t be maniacs, can they? There’s got to be a reason behind it all. Maybe even some good reasons.

        I keep coming back to a feeling that so many people want to bring about the end of the world. I read an article in the Atlantic, I think, that said that’s why ISIS was so popular. It’s part of a prophecy that there will be a great and horrible war. I’ve also read somewhere that a lot of evangelicals are taking the path that will hasten the apocalypse. And then I recently read something about an alt-right figure that said that he was an atheist, but he wanted to bring about the end of current paradigms of thought. Unfortunately, he wants to put a lot of people in prison after his side “wins”.

        There certainly is a sense that a huge change is coming in society. We are more connected than ever, and more and more of our work is done by non-sentient machines instead of sentient humans and animals with restrictive needs and requirements. What does wealth and power even mean when machines are doing all the physical labor, and much of the mental? What does it mean when we can overproduce power and food and everyone has clean water and basic shelter (we are not there yet, but we could get there — so many surpluses already)?

        Is it just that change is frightening, and the kind of people who vote for Trump want a return to old values, or a towering of the current modern system? I suppose there are as many reasons on the right as there reasons on the left for the whys of what we do and how we participate politically.

  2. A person could do a lot worse than absorb the lessons of Dr Seuss! I *loved* those books, as well as the Pooh stories.

    I just finished a book by Thomas Perry. All the bad guys got what they deserved, and are now lying in the cold, cold ground. I love fiction for that!

    • That’s one of the great things fiction can do – provide a sense of justice in what is often an unjust world. It goes back to one of the things we discussed in our McDaniel courses, that in some ways fiction has to be better than reality.

      This comment made me ponder whether something I’ve sometimes considered in passing – based purely on anecdotal evidence from personal discussions and a gut feeling with data to support it:-) – about why women read more fiction than men. Do we feel more compelled to look for fictional justice because we are more prone to being on the wrong side of societal injustice/inequity? There’s probably no way to prove or disprove such a thing, but I do like to give my protagonists, esp. the female ones, justice and a sense of fair play.

      • I think a lot of dick lit (as opposed to chick lit) is concerned with simple, clear-cut justice. James Bond works for justice. My husband used to be fascinated with the films of Stallone and Schwarzenegger — especially the ones where a lone hero was wrongly imprisoned, and spent the story breaking free of those constraints to achieve a personal justice, and sometimes a greater justice. (I seem to remember some prison break film where the lone hero rallied everyone and got all the wronged criminals out of jail.)

        It’s interesting to think about. (-: I’m going to contemplate a bit on it. Some things that flit through my head: is karma preferred by one gender over the other? How does society fit into the justice paradigm? (Justice for one even though it involves shooting a lot of people, or justice for many that may involve shooting one person?) Hmmm.

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