Does what we watch, read, listen to and play really matter? Some say it doesn’t. After all, they’d argue, it’s just mindless entertainment. It doesn’t affect how I think or feel. But scientists say that the impact of fictional characters on our lives and perspectives may be stronger than we think.
Psychologists have discovered that people reading a book tend to subconsciously merge their thought patterns with the characters they identify with. Experts call this “experience-taking.” A researcher from Ohio State University conducted six experiments on about 500 people that found that his phenomenon can actually lead to changes in the lives of readers.
The type of story and external environment make a difference on the application of this process, but the stories had a measurable impact on readers’ perspectives on issues such as homosexuality and race relations.
Obviously, sometimes that influence can be good. We may have attitudes that should be changed, and good stories can help us do that. But scientists tell us that experience-taking can cause a person to lose sight of their own identity and take on that of another for a time, and accept that character’s morals as our own. That influence doesn’t stop once we close the book, either.
If books can change our minds about truth without us having an awareness of it, we need to be careful of what sort of characters we read about.
The Science of Story
A similar concept can be applied to storytelling in any form, according to neuroscience. It’s all about the way our brains process information. As viewers connect with characters in a story, their brains release oxytocin, a powerful chemical that some call ” the love hormone”. It’s designed to help us bond closer with the people we care about. But story allows us to “bond” with people we barely know—or even people who don’t, technically, exist at all.
Researchers have found that people will donate money to a cause associated with a powerful story. Our mirror neurons are also activated when we see a character go through something, which means that our feelings are reflected in the mirror of our own neural wiring. In a sense, we go through things with them, which is why we feel physically tired after watching and action movie or anxious watching a horror movie.
In his own experiments, Dr. Uri Hasson has found that the brain of a person telling a story syncs with the listener, which is called neural coupling. Stories connect the two sides of our brain through increasing neural activity, too. Through story, the side of our brain that processes language and analysis unites with the side that processes creativity. This allows us to integrate new information into our experience. The emotional aspect of stories also alerts our brains that the linked information is important. This causes the information received in stories to be easier to recall.
Research has additionally found that stories reduce defensiveness, teach complex concepts, change behaviors and enact social change. When scientists have explored the links between stories and advertising, they’ve found that people more easily process information through stories—making ads that use storytelling more effective.
Narratives are powerful because of the way they transport the reader into a different world and allow them to understand the experiences of people in different cultures and communities. And again, that can be great. But it emphasizes the importance of carefully discerning which stories you and your family should engage with.
Stories matter. They shape our minds in many ways, so avoiding destructive stories is key to preserving a mentality that aligns with Biblical truth. This isn’t just about kids. All of us are affected by fiction, and we should put ourselves into situations to be transformed by the stories of the Bible and fiction that represents truth.