Stories not only amuse us, they also change our brains


Until a few years ago it was thought that watching series, reading novels or enjoying any other form of narrative fiction was only for entertainment. It was believed that the fiction and reality that we live every day were like oil and water: they could not mix and could not influence each other.

However, today things have changed a lot. Science has experienced a true revolution in recent decades and the so-called narrative turn has taken place .

Narrative thinking
This narrative turn has led numerous social and human sciences to certify the existence of narrative thought . We have discovered that fiction can influence our minds and help shape our mental reality and suggest itself in our daily lives.

Until recently it was believed that we only had one way of thinking (rational and logical-mathematical). Now we know that this second (narrative) mode is very important. Thanks to it we build our personal identity and understand and act in the social and cultural world that surrounds us.

Narrative thinking is not in our genes. It is built, better or worse, throughout our lives and, above all, during childhood, depending on how we use it and how we put it into operation. One of the ways we feed and shape it is through the stories, novels, movies, and other forms of narrative fiction that we interact with throughout our lives.

The ultimate enjoyment
Research has shown, for example, that interacting with a children’s animated series at an inappropriate age can disrupt narrative thinking . On the contrary, a series well adapted to the child’s level of development can help him build it better .

This ability of stories to contribute to our leisure experience and to shaping our thinking makes it very important to continue investigating what stories are, how they are structured, what we do with them and how they affect us. It is also important to know what good literature or good cinema has so that we can consider them works of art that induce aesthetic experiences, produce pleasure and entertainment and, in addition, contribute to forming the mind.

Until now, science has investigated everything that happens at the end of exposure to a fiction, that is, it has analyzed the degree of final enjoyment. One of the engines of entertainment was thought to be suspense and, to a lesser extent, surprise. This dominant conception had repercussions outside the realm of narrative fiction. For example, in education, particularly from the perspective of edutainment , it was thought that in order to motivate the student, they had to be placed in a process of immersion in suspense, leading them through the intrigue towards a final result.

Multiple dimensions
However, our recent research suggests a new perspective on what we knew until now, resulting in the elaboration of the so-called multidimensional narrative tension theory of enjoyment .

One of the novelties of this research has been to investigate the affective and mental experience of the viewer during their exposure to a series of three fiction short films and a fourth of a real-informative type. These pieces were designed, produced, made and edited by us (Jesús Bermejo, Jaime López and Miguel Ángel Gil) at the Lipsimedia Laboratory of the University of Valladolid.

The results, tested with various groups of participants, show that, during viewing, a phenomenon of narrative tension occurs in the viewer . This is characterized by the appearance of thoughts and emotions that lead him to interact with the story and therefore to relate his own personal world with the world represented in the short film that he attends as a spectator.

The narrative tension makes the viewer, based on the imbalances he experiences during his exposure to the story, prepare anticipations, retrospections, comparisons with his real life, etc., and feel different emotions throughout this lively and dynamic process. This is a crack through which the world of the story and the personal world of the viewer come into contact and interact (what he knows and remembers, what he wants…). The intensity of this exchange not only influences the construction of our narrative thought but also determines the degree of enjoyment that we experience during exposure to the story.

A second feature of this theory of narrative enjoyment has to do with the emotions that appear during viewing. Until now it was believed that a certain emotion predominated in each story (particularly suspense). However, the results that support this theory show that, while enjoying the story, the viewer activates not one but a configuration of emotions. The viewer’s enjoyment response is multidimensional.

In addition, these investigations have discovered that curiosity has a prominent role in the organization of this configuration of emotions. Until now it was believed that he had a secondary role. However, this theory states that it acts as an organizer of the rest of the emotions.

Curiosity acts as an educational axis
From this theory some theoretical consequences are derived about what stories are and the way in which we interact with them. It also has other applied consequences.

For example, in the world of education, inside and outside the school (in training and organizational courses), he argues that the training process, both in edutainment and in narrative gamification , should not be governed by the implementation of intrigues and suspense with purpose of motivating the student. Instead, he should direct his interest towards the activity by arousing curiosity about it and, from there, organize other emotions that accompany the process.

This modus operandi makes the methodology in this type of educational and training contexts also change, giving prominence to the adequate articulation of the narrative tension during enjoyment.

Author Bio: Jesus Bermejo-Berros is Professor of Audiovisual Communication and Advertising at the University of Valladolid and Director of the LipsiMedia Ad-Lab Laboratory at the University of Valladolid