Friday, May 15, 2015

The Story Addiction

image: audrey mei/wikimedia commons

Story is a drug. We crave it, we binge on it, we go through withdrawal. We get our fix and are hungover from it for days. 

Every society in history of mankind has its drugs. Every society also has its stories. These days, Americans spend more on story than they do on narcotics. Read these facts about story and you'll realize that writers and storytellers are actually dealing the most ubiquitous drug there is.

We have a social need for story.  Stories have always been used to transmit information in entertaining packages, even if the accuracy of the information itself was sacrificed for entertainment value. Values and morals are also transmitted through story.

We have a neurological need for stories. Children use story, dream, and play to build neural pathways that better prepare them for life. And at every age, by giving the audience an emotional test-run of situations they have not yet experienced themselves, stories help us build empathy. The more fiction we consume, the more empathic and socialized we become. 

Our brains react to a good story like they're on drugs. Researcher Paul Zak and his team have found oxytocin – the love, bonding, and trust hormone – spikes in our brains when we hear a good story. Oxytocin is also known to flood the brain when people take MDMA, a.k.a. ecstasy, giving them the feeling of closeness with others. When a story introduces a character that we care about, we get the same drug-like feeling of connection, without the side effects. And when the story's suspense builds, our adrenaline flows and our inner thrill-seekers get their fix.

Story can be used. Rewrite the story of your life and you can improve your grades, your health, your marital happiness, your mood, and your self-confidence. And you are more likely to do something in the future if you envision yourself doing it in the third person compared to imagining it in the first person. Meanwhile, some medical schools have recognized the power of story to heal trauma and have established departments of "narrative medicine".

Story can be abused. As more research uncovers the potency of story, everyone from Wall Street corporations to US Defense are researching ways to exploit story. Companies use story to get potential customers to feel sympathy and identify with their products. The US military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) is funding studies to understand not only how story can entice people into becoming terrorists, but also how story can be used to generate successful propaganda.

Story has affected someone you know. Even yourself. We are constantly creating and editing the narratives of our lives to make sense of the world. Story holds us together, and story can tear us apart. Because life unfortunately doesn't come with its own dramatic arc, we create our own stories and feed off the suspense from these stories that we tell ourselves. Some of us even fixate on a narrative and attempt to live by it, but whether it's a story of the femme fatale, the warrior, the universal mother, or the Casanova, living by a story is doomed because, by design, the dramatic arc comes to an end. And once the thrilling affair has crashed or the exotic summer adventure is over, we're faced with the dull progress bar of our ordinary lives.

And then it's time for a new story. Handle with care.


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