Stories and your Brain (from ‘How To Forget’)

“Stop or I’ll Shoot”

 The next time you hear this shouted, perhaps you will pause for a moment; if only to appreciate what a beautiful, well rounded and articulate phrase it is.  It is a warning honed to perfection, it is how all warnings should be: clear, concise and terrifying enough to scare the bejezus out of a bejesuit.

This book is a warning. I wish it could be as unambiguous as, “Watch Out” or “Duck” or “I’m going to have to work late at the office again dear.”  I wish it could be as brief as “Stop,” “Danger,” or that road sign which simply says “!” and waits to accrue its meaning after the event.  But at 437 pages, it is a little more complicated – and not the sort of warning that requires the same speedy attention as ones made by a weak bladder.

Unfortunately the same blinding ambition which propelled humanity forward in the exploration and domination of the planet, sprinting ahead in the race to evolve when other species couldn’t be bothered, inclines us to ignore most warnings in favour of learning from experience. Despite having developed our primitive guttural belching in to speech, despite having created the most fantastically complex warning system the planet has ever seen, today eighty percent of communication is still non-verbal and though you know when your boss, parents or teachers are talking, it’s almost impossible to listen to what they’re saying.

“Stop or I’ll shoot!” is more than a warning though.  It’s a whole story in just 4½ words; with a clear beginning, middle and end, conflict, drama, life, death, action, resolution. Stories are warnings but somehow we’re more amenable to them, more willing to go along with them.  We don’t just listen to a narrative; we ‘suspend our disbelief’, we put our natural scepticism on hold and experience it.  We allow ourselves to learn because we’re not being told.

Since long before Aesop, stories have been used as warnings when the clear threat is simply not enough.  And we love stories because with each one, we can forget everything for a while and be born again as wide eyed children unwittingly ready to learn life’s important lessons: not to talk to strange wolves in transvestite’s clothing; how true toffs will know if you have a pea in the bed; or how you can sell beef for beans, thieve your way out of poverty, murder the victim of your robbery and still live happily ever after.

But the true power of stories, and why this warning comes as one, lies in your brain.  More precisely in a part of your frontal lobes which it took a hungry capuchin monkey to discover.  He lived in a lab where, in a doomed attempt to bring a lighter side to vivisection, all the capuchins were given coffee related names. Starbuck had teeth the colour of earwax and halitosis like mustard gas and on the day of his discovery he had been grabbing at snacks all morning.  He’d been wired up to brain activity sensors, studying the components that register hunger before, and pleasure in receiving, food.  Valuable research for the hunger-inhibiting diet pill trade.  After all, we certainly don’t want an epidemic of obese monkeys.

At lunch time, Starbuck’s lab technician stopped for her break and happened to be absently watching the monitors as she reached for her sandwich.  Which is when she noticed an amazing thing.  As Starbuck watched her, she saw the same brain patterning light up on his monitors as when he had been reaching for food himself.  She quickly realised that he was empathising and she could see exactly the parts of the brain where this happened.

From that one sandwich, we not only found that monkeys were capable of empathy, so just how far men have evolved away from monkeys, but also that the brain’s ‘mirror neurons’ extend into the premotor cortex, where we weigh intentions, and our parietal lobe where we register sensation.

Now we know why we wince when we see another person punched.  Empathy is hard wired into our brains.  We experience just by watching others’ experiences.  We tell stories to stimulate the mirror neurons.  We watch a film and become the characters, we read someone’s story and for the time we’re in it, the connections within our own brains actually reshape, they begin to mirror the connections in the character’s brain.

So this book, like every story you’ve ever read, heard or watched, will alter the shape of your brain.  Whatever you think, this book is guarenteed to change your mind.

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