Why do we get so hooked?
Recently I curled up on the sofa with my other half, settled down with a mellow glass of red to enjoy an episode or two of Dexter. Now Dexter is one of my favourite US series. For those of you who don’t know anything about this series, you may think I need therapy for being so compelled to watch it. It’s about a serial killer who works for the police as a blood-spatter analyst. Yes… he’s the lead character and despite his unhealthy hobby, he’s the hero (or should it be anti-hero?). Those fans of the programme actually like him and hope he never gets caught. From watching the previous series and having to wait for a whole week to go by before catching up with the next episode, we decided to record them to watch in bulk. After some mishap with the recordings, I just had to buy the boxed set (Stay with me here…. )
The up-shot is that the two episode evening lasted all weekend. It’s a good job there was nothing more pressing to get done (the ironing could wait!).
We’ve recently started to watch 24. Well, you can imagine what happened although this time we had to be very strict with ourselves.
So what’s the point of all this? Well I started to wonder why we found it so compelling – to sit there and watch episode after episode until our eyes became square (or rather 42 inch wide-screen).
From an early age we love stories. I’ve spoken to many a parent who can almost recite Thomas the Tank Engine word for word from memory or that video of The Little Mermaid is almost unrecognisable after the trillionth time of watching. My brother and his wife are expecting their first child in November and I suspect they’ll be no different. Her Auntie Laura will likely also be caught up in the magical world of story-telling too.
It doesn’t stop though does it? The love of stories? We may grow out of the wide-eyed excitement of being read bed-time stories but the magic doesn’t stop when we grow up. It just grows with us. From Disney films to Dr. Who. From romantic comedies to dark gothic vampire tales. From the trashy, steamy novel to the complicated thrillers or classical period tales of yester-year. What keeps us so enthralled?
Telling stories began thousands of year in the past. We can see evidence of it from ancient drawings on cave walls. We can imagine travellers recounting tales of their journeys round campfires and then progress meant those words could then be recorded for generations.
I have my own theories by analysing my own love of a good story and would like to share what I like them here.
immediate connection with the characters
emotional – being able to feel sadness, happiness, fear the characters are feeling
a compelling storyline
mystery that keeps you guessing what might happen next
challenging where you put yourself in the character’s shoes to work out the next step
sparking imagination through descriptive writing if reading the story
visually stimulating through clever direction and cinematography
In short – I need to believe I could be there. I need to live it and be totally immersed even if it might be the most fantastic tale of hobgoblins and superheroes.
In order to satisfy my own curiosity, I set about doing a little (and I mean a little) research into why storytelling has such an impact on us. What I found was fascinating – and it’s only the tip of the storytelling iceberg.
In a New Scientist article by Richard Fisher, entitled ‘the evolving art of storytelling’ he explored the effect an immersive experience of a good book or movie has on our brains. He found that according to neuroscientists and psychologists, areas of our brains react to the emotions the characters are feeling as if we were ‘in their shoes’. Our brains behave in such a way as if we were experiencing the fiction as if it were our real-world experiences. The reason stories have such a powerful effect is the release of chemicals serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine such compelling stories trigger in our brains. Fisher goes on to review ‘The Art of Immersion’ (available on Kindle) by Frank Rose, which investigates storytelling and how it’s evolved with technology and something those of us who are looking to design experiences in our e-learning and engage our learners might find worth a look (note to self – order this book).
In another article ‘Mind Reading: the science of storytelling’ which referenced the same research reports further that our brains will react the same way regardless whether we are reading the story or watching an action video but the most potent of all is that of the ’emotionally charged story’.
What I found rassuring was because of the chemical triggers in the brain this “explains why we can be lured into watching back-to-back episodes of series” and that “we are empathetically engaged. We are treating this as if it is our real family. We can’t help but care for these people”. So, there you have it. Proof that I’m not really that sad. I may have an addictive personality but the only drugs I may be addicted to are serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine! Although I’m not sure whether I’d like to think a serial killer blood-spatter analyst as family.