22 September 2008

Transportation Authority

One of our long-time web favorites, Denis Dutton over at Arts & Letters Daily, points us to this article in Scientific American: "The Secrets of Storytelling: Why We Love a Good Yarn." Read it. Go ahead, and come back.

First, some quotes:
Why does our brain seem to be wired to enjoy stories? And how do the emotional and cognitive effects of a narrative influence our beliefs and real-world decisions?

The answers to these questions seem to be rooted in our history as a social animal. We tell stories about other people and for other people. Stories help us to keep tabs on what is happening in our communities. The safe, imaginary world of a story may be a kind of training ground, where we can practice interacting with others and learn the customs and rules of society. And stories have a unique power to persuade and motivate, because they appeal to our emotions and capacity for empathy.
Because there are so many diverse forms, scholars often define story structure, known as narrative, by explaining what it is not. Exposition contrasts with narrative by being a simple, straightforward explanation, such as a list of facts or an encyclopedia entry. Another standard approach defines narrative as a series of causally linked events that unfold over time. A third definition hinges on the typical narrative’s subject matter: the interactions of intentional agents—characters with minds—who possess various motivations.

However narrative is defined, people know it when they feel it. Whether fiction or nonfiction, a narrative engages its audience through psychological realism—recognizable emotions and believable interactions among characters.

“Everyone has a natural detector for psychological realism,” says Raymond A. Mar, assistant professor of psychology at York University in Toronto. “We can tell when something rings false.”

But the best stories—those retold through generations and translated into other languages—do more than simply present a believable picture. These tales captivate their audience, whose emotions can be inextricably tied to those of the story’s characters. Such immersion is a state psychologists call “narrative transport.”
“One might have expected natural selection to have weeded out any inclination to engage in imaginary worlds rather than the real one,” writes Steven Pinker, a Harvard University evolutionary psychologist, in the April 2007 issue of Philosophy and Literature. Pinker goes on to argue against this claim, positing that stories are an important tool for learning and for developing relationships with others in one’s social group. And most scientists are starting to agree: stories have such a powerful and universal appeal that the neurological roots of both telling tales and enjoying them are probably tied to crucial parts of our social cognition.

As our ancestors evolved to live in groups, the hypothesis goes, they had to make sense of increasingly complex social relationships. Living in a community requires keeping tabs on who the group members are and what they are doing. What better way to spread such information than through storytelling?
“If you’re training to be a pilot, you spend time in a flight simulator,” says Keith Oatley, a professor of applied cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto. Preliminary research by Oatley and Mar suggests that stories may act as “flight simulators” for social life.
In support for the idea that stories act as practice for real life are imaging studies that reveal similar brain ac tivity during viewings of real people and animated cha­racters. In 2007 Mar conducted a study using Waking Life, a 2001 film in which live footage of actors was traced so that the characters appear to be animated drawings. Mar used functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan volunteers’ brains as they watched matching footage of the real actors and the corresponding animated characters. During the real footage, brain activity spiked strongly in the superior temporal sulcus and the temporoparietal junction, areas associated with processing biological motion. The same areas lit up to a lesser extent for the animated footage. “This difference in brain activation could be how we distinguish between fantasy and reality,” Mar says.

Nothing really new to report here. This is a summing up of several scientific points of view seemingly converging around a consistent hypothesis. Fair enough—and a good starting point.

If you've been following our own thoughts on this subject, you've watched as we walked through James Wood's recent book: How Fiction Works, concluding that he gave short shrift to the centrality of story in the operation of fiction. You've also read our own first investigations into the (dare we call it) universal importance of what we're calling "Ur-story" to fiction. The studies cited by the Scientific American study identify three basic narrative patterns that, they say, account for roughly two-thirds of the most respected narrative traditions:
As many as two thirds of the most respected stories in narrative traditions seem to be variations on three narrative patterns, or prototypes, according to Hogan. The two more common prototypes are romantic and heroic scenarios—the former focuses on the trials and travails of love, whereas the latter deals with power struggles. The third prototype, dubbed “sacrificial” by Hogan, focuses on agrarian plenty versus famine as well as on societal redemption. These themes appear over and over again...
Our own exploration attempted to reconcile these themes (as well as that of comedy!) to the basic thesis of the Ur-story series of posts, to wit: that all fiction is grounded in the all-too-human response to the burgeoning consciousness of one's own mortality—the heroic quest, the romance, comedy. 'Models of consciousness' we called them. We also brought the Ur-story thesis to bear on the foundation of Judeo-Christian religion.

Nigel Beale, over at Nota Bene Books, has posted a couple thoughts on this matter here, here, and here apparently defending Wood's approach to the topic by siding with Forster over Aristotle.

We don't necessarily buy into Forster's distinction between story and plot—summarized as time-sequence vs. causality. For a good discussion, see Scott Esposito's take on Aspects of the Novel here at Conversational Reading. We find 'story' to have an altogether more noble place in the novel: indeed, it is the substance of the novel. Character without action is static. The novel is dynamic: it is a character in action—whether it is deciding on a course of action or refusing to do so. In choosing or in acting the character is revealed. This is the story. And the character's decision or action is motivated by who he is and this arises from his story, which we maintain has to do with his response to the human condition of mortality, aloneness, and loss. Thoughts, descriptions, characteristics, tags, ticks: these things do not make a character. What defines a character is what he does. Story, to us, is something much more than Forster's time sequence.

This is not to say plot is unimportant. The novel does not operate in a vacuum. No choice is made without some lead up and no choice is without consequences. The plot, as Forster maintained, does operate on the cause-and-effect level. And when a the writer has a character 'in story', plot is often neglected: that is to say, often it is enough in literary fiction to give the internal motivations for a character's action—plot be damned. In fact, plot is hard for the literary writer whose main concern is character and character development. Plot is easier to do in the genre novel—where the character's existential concerns are often irrelevant or peripheral. Window-dressing, at best, that slows down the pace. In the so-called character-driven novel, weaving thematically-consistent external motivating factors into the weft of the story (i.e., plotting) stretches the writer beyond the "method" approach, the "journalling" or whatever the current argot is for inhabiting the fictional mind-space of the character. The reader must see the character in action. In this sense, we diverge from Forster. His "the king died and the queen died" is not a true story. When you get to "the king died and the queen died of grief" you are getting closer to story. Plot, on our view, is more "how" than "why". Thus, if the queen threw herself upon her dagger or flung herself from her tower or challenged the dead king's usurper or led her people into a futile battle or refused to eat or strolled naked upon the cold night parapets or inexplicably fell into a coma or fomented a rebellion by sleeping with every commoner or foreigner she met or brought ruin upon the kingdom and eventually herself by squandering its treasury or... (we could go on), you have the rudiments of an interwoven story and plot—how she acted out in response to the king's death which, in turn, brought about her own demise. The act itself—say, leaping from the tower—causes her death: that is plotting. But the desperation that lead to that leaping is her story. Why leap? Why not passive-aggressively have a courtier push her? What does the action reveal about her inner turmoil? This is the kind of question story raises and, hopefully, answers.

The informative, instructive, socializing, aspects of fiction identified in the Scientific American article make no sense in the context of a static character. The character must be seen to act, and the reader must understand what drove her to decide to act in precisely the way she did: what did she know, what prompted her, what was her emotional arc. If she is merely reactive, an effect, determined, passive, at the whim of the plotting, she will be wholly uninteresting. Something about her must set her and her responses apart. This is the story. And story is what keeps us reading.

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