Scientific American online has an interesting article entitled The Secrets of Storytelling: Why We Love a Good Yarn that does a nice job of summarizing some of the current thinking concerning the link between universal themes in literature and theories of mind. One of the challenges researchers in this field have faced, as the article describes, is simply defining what constitutes a story. With so many narrative forms, that’s not as easy as it sounds. The author of this article explains that researchers have typically relied more on the contrasts between narrative forms than the similarities, but in the end it’s a “know it when you feel it” conclusion that seems to prevail. From the article: “Whether fiction or nonfiction, a narrative engages its audience through psychological realism–recognizable emotions and believable interactions among characters.”
In my opinion, that’s a bit too general a conclusion; seems to me that no matter the sort of narrative, the psychological dynamic is immersion. And in fariness, the article explores this area as well — addressing the state of mind dubbed “narrative transport” and the recent research that has launched from identifying this foundational aspect of why storytelling has the power it does.
Another area investigated in this piece is what narrative reveals about the social roots of the human mind, and what this has to do with the dynamics of persuasion and influence. The author cites the funny but true statistics concerning the drop in Merlot sales after the movie Sideways came out (Paul Giamati’s wine-savvy character gave Merlot a black eye by saying he refused to drink it – evidently enough to make several thousand people also refuse to buy it). Not incidentally, sales of California Pinot (the Giamati character’s favorite wine) went through the roof at the same time. There’s ample evidence to suggest that when immersed in a story (in “story mode”), people are more open to persuasion than when they are thinking analytically. Not exactly new news, but finally being born out evidentially in research.