Are stories a kind of emotional gym, where we can do a workout and so strengthen ourselves, improving our problem solving and ability to endure stressful situations?
Or are they all about the glorious state of relaxation that washes over us once the story is over, and the stress and tension are relieved?
The answer appears to be: both.
In a blog post (which unfortunately seems to have been deleted – but is mostly still available here) author David Farland puts forward the theory that the reason story telling is so popular is that it activates not one but two of the three possible strategies for dealing with stress and problems. The three options are:
- Direct action to get rid of the stress – for example, if we have money problems, go out and make money.
- Escape – take your mind off things with a holiday, a night out, through booze or drugs etc.
- Rejuvenation – coping with the stress through the use of emotional exercises.
Story, Farland says, “lets you escape and rejuvenate simultaneously.”
“By reading a book or watching a movie, to a degree you escape from your own life, your own world, and become immersed in a fictive universe. You take an emotional vacation. Typically, this is most true in the opening of a story where the author spends a good deal of time establishing the setting and characters. There, the conflicts may be less significant and may appear more easily resolvable than at the end.”
As the story progresses and conflict intensifies, this triggers the rejuvenation:
“Your subconscious mind does not completely recognize the difference between your real experiences and those that occur only in the imagination. So, when you become Frodo Baggins walking the road to the Crack of Doom, chased by dark riders, the subconscious mind responds to some degree as if those incidents were really happening.
Indeed, the more completely you become immersed in a fictive tale, the more totally your body will respond.”
The body will respond initially with stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. The body then seeks to restore balance and helps you to cope with the (fictional) stress by releasing endorphins. These are naturally produced opiates which control and diminish pain.
So, when we are reading stories, we are, in a sense, like a drug addict, taking stimulants one moment, and ‘downers’ the next. But there’s one big hit still to come:
“At some phase of the story, you reach the “happy ending,” and your brain rewards you for a job well done—by releasing large amounts of serotonin into the brain, which makes you feel happy. It’s the same chemical released to the brain when you eat delicious foods. Only in this case, it’s the reward for defeating the “Dark Lord,” or overcoming a similar problem.
You’ve just performed an emotional exercise, very similar to a physical exercise. Reading is to the mind as aerobics is to the heart and lungs. Because you have performed this emotional exercise, you will be better able to handle the little stresses in your day-to-day life.”
So, people read stories partly because they want to trigger these natural body responses, and at one level the body can’t really tell the difference between what is really happening in the world and what is only fictional, but happening sure enough in the imagination. It goes through a stress response and releases the appropriate chemicals, but then the ‘antidote’ kicks in – the endorphins and finally the serotonin.
But we are also reading to strengthen our emotional muscles. Stories are a work-out. They are preparation for life.