Everyone loves a good story. Stories have the power to move us to a different place and time. A story can make us full of the milk of human kindness, or it can sink you into the pits of despair. As a psychologist I find it amazingly fascinating, how something as simple as the written word can affect us in such strong ways. It amazes me that human beings have such developed empathy that we can emotionally connect to a creation of our minds. Such is the power of human empathy that, we regularly see people crying in cinemas and over books. When it comes down to it this is what draws us in. We want to feel and enjoy the experience of escapism. But I kinda want to look further; I want to look into why we enjoy emotionally charged material and why we love to escape.
Keen (2007) wrote a fantastic paper (derived from a wider text she had written earlier) about her theory of narrative empathy. She goes into great depth about the nature of human empathy (which I will not go into great detail on, for fear of either losing or boring you. If you do want to look into it more click the link). She explains that empathy is simply the ability to share affect. It is the ability to feel one’s pain as opposed to feeling pity for one’s pain (sympathy). The real interest comes with the description of the theory of narrative empathy. She explains that a character we feel empathy for doesn’t have to be greatly realistic or complex. Our ability to empathise with a character comes down to three things; Identity, Situation and Feelings. We have to be able to accept and feel a combination of these things. Keen does however state that, not all people respond the same way to situations. Certain groups of people will react in different ways to the same character. Therefore it is important to understand your audience. It is, as she states, important to have characters with defined traits and goals. Once ambiguity is excluded it is easier to empathise with characters. The reason humans enjoy story telling is simply down to the level black and white, good and evil. That’s not to say that we cannot empathise with a more blurred story, just that it’s harder.
When you think about this anthropologically, we are social beings. We need groups, and we need others. Our ability to story tell is as innate to us as the ability of a child to suckle on a mother’s teat. The safe and imaginary world of our stories are almost a training ground for our life experience. We are educated through storytelling. Our whole lives we are guided by the stories of those around us. We learn the basics of societal laws and social interaction through tales. Even our moral compass is based on storytelling, whether it’s through fables, religious scripture or both. An article titled The Secrets of Storytelling: Why We Love a Good Yarn, Takes an exploration in to how the narrative of a text can control our emotions. The author states that research into storytelling is still in its infancy, however, themes have been discovered. In all cultures an emphasis is placed on descriptive traits of women’s physical appearance, playing on our Darwinian emphasis on reductive qualities of the female. All cultures also focused on the battle between good and evil, and all had relatable characters. The author suggests that our ability to empathise with a story is both an innate trait and a learnt one. In this he means that we have an ability to empathise with a story, but each do so in different ways, dictated by our life experience.
It all comes down to the ideas of escapism and empathy. At the end of the day, people use stories as a way to escape into another world. We are drawn into the fictional world and we are kept there by the reinforcement of brain chemistry, brought on by our ability to empathise. With this in mind writers can use our empathy to draw us into a wide range of different storytelling styles. We can escape into; books, poems, films, spoken words and music. Such is the human disposition to a story that we have created great installations of art to express a story in a snap shot form.
To sum all of this up, the beauty of our species is our ability to feel the feelings of others and our imaginative ways of expressing this. Through a connection to a simple story great beauty can be achieved. I implore everyone reading this to go out and get lost in a story. Discover the beauty of humanity.