Why do we read? I hadn’t really thought about this question in any depth. Sure I could tell you that I do it because I love to, that those stolen hours lost in pages are exciting, exhilarating escapism. But I’d never considered – and as a psychologist with my theoretical roots firmly embedded in science and evolution I should have – that story is actually a powerful part of our lives.
Think about it, unlike other pass times – like quilting,croquet or gambling – everyone does story in one form or another. I devour books, my husband loves to watch TV, my son absorbs himself in games of breeding dragons or building pixelated forests. Children take plastic My Little Pony’s and build families and plan great adventures. Adults take little painted figurines and build empires and plan their enemy’s defeat. Gossiping is story, seeing a psychologist is all about telling your story, marketers know that a good story will invest you in their product. I realised that story is EVERYWHERE.
Which means escapism isn’t a good enough reason for story to be with us. It’s true, getting lost in a story isn’t smart: from centuries ago, when keeping an eye out for sabre tooth tigers was pretty essential for survival, through to modern times, where paying your mortgage keeps food in your fridge. Story has been so pervasive and universal that it’s survived the ruthless mill of evolution, that unrelenting process that screens out anything that doesn’t ensure our species will be here to produce future generations. If it’s not securing our survival, then its cut. Gone.
Why then? Why is story still around? Why is it woven so tightly into the layers of our life?
Essentially, story was, and continues to be, our first virtual reality. Just like it’s much safer for pilots to learn to fly in simulators, we get to learn the complicated lessons of life through the experience of others. In the same way pilots prefer to make their mistakes much closer to the ground, we get to see what could happen if our baby sitter didn’t turn out to be who we thought they were, how to take down a zombie, what a serial killer is capable of, how to navigate a dystopian world, what the ripple effect of having an affair with your neighbour is. In real life, mistakes can be devastating for pilots and us alike. With story, we get to do all of this and more, all without the deadly crash landing.
Evolution thought this was so important that it actually wired us for story. In fact, it thought it was so important, it deeply embedded it into our grey matter it in two significant ways. The first has us probing right down at a cellular level. Neurons are the spindly, spidery cells that make up our brain matter. They’re the little suckers that zip information all around our brain and body. A relatively recent discovery was that of mirror neurons, cells that fire both when you do something but also when you see someone else doing it. Oh, like hear a story, watch a movie… or read a book! Mirror neurons are why we get just as excited watching sport as playing it, why we scrunch up in our seats and turn our eyes away from a horror film.
Or why we have a physical, visceral response to a great book.
Pretty cool, huh?
Another is in the chemical communications that happen in our head. Namely dopamine, the little molecule involved in pleasure and reward. Food, sex and cocaine all trigger the release dopamine in our brain. And so does devouring a good book.
In the case of reading, dopamine is your brains way of rewarding curiosity, so you can learn the hard-won lessons the character is enduring (in the safety of the library or your lounge room). Interestingly, the more dopamine is released, the more of a high we get, the more we want to keep doing what we’re doing. Most importantly, if the brain anticipates doing that activity again, like reading, it will release dopamine accordingly. Think about it, we’ve all been there when our favourite author releases a new book. When that book finally rests in your palms, that happy, heady feeling has you diving into the first page no matter where you are. It’s the brain’s way of encouraging you to go for it because it felt so good last time.
When I learnt all this, as a reader I felt validated. I finally figured out why I turn up to work gritty eyed and wishing I drank coffee because ‘just one more chapter’ turned into ‘there’s only a hundred pages to go, I might as well finish it’. It’s not about poor self-control, an addictive personality or a belief I can function on three hours sleep. My brain is wired to want this! (Okay, fine… maybe self-control got skipped in my DNA… )
But as a writer I was fascinated.
I realised all this knowledge is the foundation of what readers are unconsciously looking for in a story. Why some books are ‘meh’ and why some will be OMG IT’S PHYSICALLY IMPOSSIBLE FOR ME TO PUT THIS DOWN!
If you capture your reader, give them a character they care about as they fight, fail but ultimately learn, if you swallow them whole with your words and your wit, you’ve done it. You’ve got them. They’ll connect with your protagonist, your story…
And if it’s really got them hooked, the ones on your backlist, and the ones yet to come.
What writer doesn’t want that?
In future posts I’ll start teasing apart what the parts of our craft that will fire a readers’ mirror neurons, spark that rush of dopamine, so check out the PsychWriter blog: where psychology meets writing.