“If you’re training to be a pilot, you spend time in a flight simulator,” says Keith Oatley, a professor of applied cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto. Preliminary research by Oatley and Mar suggests that stories may act as “flight simulators” for social life. A 2006 study hinted at a connection between the enjoyment of stories and better social abilities. The researchers used both self-report and assessment tests to determine social ability and empathy among 94 students, whom they also surveyed for name recognition of authors who wrote narrative fiction and nonnarrative nonfiction. They found that students who had had more exposure to fiction tended to perform better on social ability and empathy tests. Although the results are provocative, the authors caution that the study did not probe cause and effect—exposure to stories may hone social skills as the researchers suspect, but perhaps socially inclined individuals simply seek out more narrative fiction.
In support for the idea that stories act as practice for real life are imaging studies that reveal similar brain activity during viewings of real people and animated characters. In 2007 Mar conducted a study using Waking Life, a 2001 film in which live footage of actors was traced so that the characters appear to be animated drawings. Mar used functional magnetic resonance imaging to scan volunteers’ brains as they watched matching footage of the real actors and the corresponding animated characters. During the real footage, brain activity spiked strongly in the superior temporal sulcus and the temporoparietal junction, areas associated with processing biological motion. The same areas lit up to a lesser extent for the animated footage. “This difference in brain activation could be how we distinguish between fantasy and reality,” Mar says.
As psychologists probe our love of stories for clues about our evolutionary history, other researchers have begun examining the themes and character types that appear consistently in narratives from all cultures. Their work is revealing universal similarities that may reflect a shared, evolved human psyche.
Boy Meets Girl …
A 2006 study by Jonathan Gottschall, an English professor at Washington & Jefferson College, found relevant depictions of romantic love in folktales scattered across space and time. The idea of romantic love has not been traditionally considered to be a cultural universal because of the many societies in which marriage is mainly an economic or utilitarian consideration. But Gottschall’s study suggests that rather than being a construct of certain societies, romantic love must have roots in our common ancestry. In other words, romance—not just sex—has a biological basis in the brain.
“You do find these commonalities,” Gottschall says. He is one of several scholars, known informally as literary Darwinists, who assert that story themes do not simply spring from each specific culture. Instead the literary Darwinists propose that stories from around the world have universal themes reflecting our common underlying biology.
Another of Gottschall’s studies published earlier this year reveals a persistent mind-set regarding gender roles. His team did a content analysis of 90 folktale collections, each consisting of 50 to 100 stories, from societies running the gamut from industrial nations to hunter-gatherer tribes. They found overwhelmingly similar gender depictions emphasizing strong male protagonists and female beauty. To counterbalance the possibility that male storytellers were biasing gender idealizations, the team also sampled cultures that were more egalitarian and less patriarchal.
“We couldn’t even find one culture that had more emphasis on male beauty,” Gottschall notes, explaining that the study sample had three times as many male as compared with female main characters and six times as many references to female beauty as to male beauty. That difference in gender stereotypes, he suggests, may reflect the classic Darwinian emphasis on reproductive health in women, signified by youth and beauty, and on the desirable male ability to provide for a family, signaled by physical power and success.