The revealing thing about stories

A story is not meant to be understood all at once, that’s what makes a good story so delicious … the slow, tantalising reveal. It’s what we crave as readers.

We start by being plonked into the middle of someone’s life – usually in a crisis situation – and spend the rest of the story finding out how they got there and what they did about it. The lip-smacking part at the end where we discover how their life resolves itself is what we’re aiming for.

But why does the story have the effect that it does on us?

I came across this quote recently,

“It would be a lowly art that allowed itself to be understood all at once.”

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

and it made me think about what ‘allowing itself to be understood’ means.

Reading stories can rewire our brain – honestly

Stories have been around since time immemorial. It’s how we learn about the world and how to react to it. When you read about something you’ve never encountered – how to get away from a marauding lion, for instance – you remember it and can put it to good use when you do come across one. It’s how our ancestors learnt how to survive.

Reading can instill empathy. Being dropped into someone else’s shoes and finding out how they tick and how they feel makes us think about ourselves and others. It opens up possibilities we might never have thought of. Think of the plight of repressed and segregated sectors of society. You can’t sympathise with them if you don’t know what affects them. Once you know how they feel about their situation you can begin to identify with people and to understand them.

… a number of studies suggest that books — and specifically literary fiction — can [also] affect social skills, emotional intelligence, and behaviour throughout life. As Canadian novelist and psychological scientist Keith Oatley, an APS Fellow, has written, stories appear to offer a deeply felt simulation of social experience, expanding our understanding of ourselves and others.

Psychological Science

So, get your kids reading as early as possible and they might turn out to be well-rounded individuals with a deeper understanding of the world. That’s what you want, isn’t it?

Brain-scanning the effects of reading on people

The Association for Psychological Science carried out brain studies on people reading. What they found was remarkable.

For 5 days, the participants underwent daily functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans while at rest. Over the next 9 days, the students read portions of the book until they finished, undergoing additional fMRI scans every morning. Their brains also were scanned for 5 days after they finished the book.

In looking at the scan results, Berns and his colleagues detected heightened activity in regions of the brain associated with physical sensation and movement. Those types of changes suggested that reading fiction — any fiction — mentally transports us into the body of the protagonist.

What’s more, the neurological changes continued for 5 days after participants finished reading, revealing that the effect wasn’t fleeting, the researchers said.


Wow! That’s why a really good book can affect me for days after I’ve finished it.

Stories as illusion

A good story well-written creates an illusion of being real. The job of the author is to make it so believable that you forget it is an illusion. You become immersed in the lives of the characters on the page. That’s why you laugh and cry with them and zip out the other end feeling emotionally drained and bereft at leaving their world and their lives.

It’s helped you understand more than just the elements of the story itself.

It’s rewired your brain.

Now, find yourself a good book and see how it alters your perception of the world.