Story in the Human Psyche

After my brief hiatus (life got busy and I got overwhelmed), I’m back and excited to bring you a series of posts that will be part of a book I’m writing. Harness Your Reader’s Psychology is going to all about understanding what draws readers to your story, what fires their psychology, and how we can harness that.

The first part of the book will focus on why readers read. Four chapters will explore where story can be found, why we’re so drawn to it, how story impacts us, and what it is readers are really looking for. So this week, we’re going to discover exactly how pervasive story is.

Most writers can tell you that story lives in other places outside of books. We understand that everyone does story in one form or another, even those that don’t read. I devour books, my husband loves to watch TV, my son absorbs himself in games of breeding dragons or building pixelated forests. In fact, gossiping is story, seeing a psychologist is all about telling your story, marketers know that a good story will invest you in their product. 

Story’s roots are so deeply embedded and woven through our humanity, that it is, quite literally, everywhere. Yep, story is everywhere.

The proof that fiction is deeply embedded in humanity’s psyche is simple—story is everywhere. Story was with the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime thousands of years ago, it’s stamped in the hieroglyphics of the pyramids and was carried in the beaded necklaces of the American Indians. And yes, we are reading less than we used to, and oral story telling is an art on the brink of extinction. But that isn’t because we’ve forsaken fiction. Story now thrives in chart-busting love ballads, Call of Duty games, and generates billions of dollars in movies about blue-skinned, long-tailed Avatars.  

Many of us understand that most of those examples are stories. But story is deeply embedded in our psyche, as evidenced by the stories we tell ourselves. Whether you aspire to be a writer or not, we are all storytellers in our sleep. Dreams are the places where we fly, commit adultery, witness murders, save lives. We spend hours (some scientists believe we may dream all night) scripting and screening fantastical theatre in our mind. Asleep, everyone of us is a storyteller. 

Nor do we stop dreaming when we’re awake. Daydreaming is the mind’s default state. We daydream when driving, when walking, when mopping the floor, when listening to Uncle Joe regal us with the golden years. The reality is, that if our mind isn’t focused on a task, it will skip off to wondering what would happen if you interrupted Uncle Joe and began discussing the joys of cross-dressing.

In fact, our mind can’t help but create stories. This point is beautifully illustrated by an experiment conducted by psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel. It was the mid-1940’s when the researchers made a short film, a simple black and white animation that lasts about a minute and a half. Essentially, there is a big rectangle that is motionless, except for a flap on the side that opens and closes. There’s a big triangle, a small triangle, and a small circle. The animation starts with the big triangle inside the big rectangle. The small triangle and circle then move onto the screen. As the big square’s flap opens, the big triangle moves out. The three shapes move around the screen, in and out of the rectangle. After ninety seconds or so, the little triangle and little circle leave the screen again.

heider-simmel

When I watched the film, I didn’t see basic geometric shapes. Instead I saw a father (the big triangle) inside his home, comfortable that he is lord and master of his domain. His daughter (the small circle) enters the scene with her newfound love, the little triangle. The father exits the house, and is furious to discover who his daughter has chosen. He instantly attacks the boyfriend, using his size to aggressively push and shove the smaller triangle around. He fires insults at the poor fellow, never giving him a chance to defend himself, then orders him to stay away from his daughter. The daughter runs to the house, cowering from behind the door as she watches in horror. But as she sees her love be bullied, the indignation has her approaching them. But her father berates her, being brutish and dominant. The couple try to flee, only to be chased. Eventually, they manage to escape. There’s a possibility the father may never see his daughter again.

It was all very Romeo and Juliet, angst-filled teens fighting for identity and love and independence. In truth, it was a silly story my mind created in the moment from ambiguous stimuli.

Thankfully, I’m not alone. After showing the film to their research subjects, Heider and Simmel gave them a simple task. 

Describe what you see.

It’s fascinating (and relieving!) to discover that less than three percent of participants gave a truly subjective answer. The majority were like me; they didn’t see inanimate objects, they saw characters and drama and emotion driven action. (The link to the animation is at the end of this article.)

We can’t help but create story.

What’s more, not only do we think in story, but our interactions are driven by story. When we meet another person, the simple question of ‘how are you?’ sparks a description of our current state; the why we feel like that, and the how of how we got there. Discussing the news, our workmates, the latest reality TV craze is natural and normal. It’s all underscored by story. In fact, some scientists believe that one of the reasons story has stayed with us through the centuries is because of its importance in helping us function as individuals, but also in groups.

So not only is story everywhere, we’re incapable of being without it. 

As writers, this is a something we want to harness. Our readers are drawn to our narratives for a reason; an unconscious one, a deeply rooted one. To do that, to grab them by the neutrons and not let go, we need to understand why story has become such a staple of our psyche, the how of what we’re trying to harness, and ultimately, what readers are really looking for.

For that, stay tuned to the upcoming posts in this series.

In the meantime, you can check out the Heider and Simmel animation HERE. I’d love to hear what story your mind came up with as you watch those shapes move around. Were you aware of how pervasive story is? Can you think of any other examples of story weaving it’s way into our lives and psyche? Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook or Twitter.

Have a wonderful week,

Tamar

7 comments

  1. Interesting! Never heard of or saw anything like this before.
    I see (or imagine) fish or other underwater creatures checking out a possible source of food or some new thing in the water. And one of those (big) fish is particularly aggressive as they defend the territory. The other two run off to find an easier source of food or shelter, and then aggro-fishie gets all POd about it. It reminds me of cloud shapes and stories I can make of them. Or just people-watching in a cafe or something and, judging from body language, creating a story about them.

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  2. Welcome back Tamar – we all disappeared over the summer and I’m just back, too. I was struck by several things you wrote in this terrific intro-synopsis to your new book. The mind never stops creating stories, like talking to ourselves. I keep a copy of The Old Man and the Sea on my desk–a talisman of sorts to remind me about storytelling. In this brilliant gem, Hemingway has the fisherman always talking to himself and sometimes aloud. This brilliant novel, my favorite of all Hemingway’s jewelry relates to what you wrote about, and should be a must-read for all writers. Let me know if you agree.

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  3. I saw a bully getting rid of an intruder, he thinks. He doesn’t take in that the intruder came with someone he knows, someone he lets into his house, he just wants him gone, Then when the intruder opens the door and gets the girl and leaves with her the bully tears apart his abode and left alone.

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    1. Interesting! My psych mind is pondering how our own experiences and history affects our interpretation (I write YA romance, so my story was heviky influenced by that). Thanks for sharing 😊

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