How Do Stories Speak to Us?
I find it refreshing to read technical definitions of the familiar. Those things I do so often that wondering how I do them is a question that’s been shelved — in fact, it’s already dusty — somewhere in the back of my mind. I don’t know, for example, what happens when I give an object my attention; when I write a sentence, or remember one; or when I look at a painting, love a poem, or read a story.
It’s this last one I study: I’m a graduate student in English literature. My work can sometimes feel outdated or esoteric, but it doesn’t feel that way right now. We’re in the middle of a still-growing, already-massive series of book bans: to date, there are bans in 32 states for 1,648 unique titles. As politicians, lobbyists, and parents argue their points, they take sometimes-direct, sometimes-oblique stabs at this question: what happens when we read?
For the most part, their arguments do not refresh the familiar. They make it scary. These arguments often rely on inflammatory ideas of what occurs behind closed classroom doors, or what lessons lurk between the covers of a book. The advocacy groups repeat similar points to those used in book banning episodes across centuries. They censor according to racist, homophobic, and transphobic beliefs: 41% of the books banned in the last year have LGBTQ+ themes, and 40% have prominent characters of color. The banning movement seeks to define and control social values by sweeping grips on what children read, watch, and learn. The specter of what happens as we read is murky and powerful.
Part of me is perversely happy that we all seem to agree that books can be powerful. Take that, “decline of the humanities” — books have power! Most of me, though, is worried. Book banners only acknowledge a power that comes with a sense of insidiousness. There’s little engagement with what actually happen as we read; only an attempt to stave off its worst effects. That’s been true of other book banning efforts in the past, and true of a distrust of writing that dates all the way back to Socrates (who was very skeptical of the written word). What’s different this time? As others have pointed out, the bans are growing at an unprecedented pace, and the movement as a whole is newly politicized.
There’s something more, too, which hasn’t gotten as much attention: this wave of bans is not focused on history classrooms and textbooks. Instead, it’s specifically stories — the big names in fiction and memoir are Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, George Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue — that are moving off shelves. 75% of the bans in the last year are of fiction, and 49% of those are young adult novels. So, to add to that first question: what happens when we read stories?
Stories seems to be where our sense of reading is murkiest. Somewhere in those unseen moments with a book, stories work on young readers. Book banners argue against the storyteller’s artistry: these narratives expose readers to new, unwanted perspectives and insist that they sympathize with marginalized identities. Book defenders cite similar effects: these stories are eye-opening, exposing, illuminating perspectives in ways that are inaccessible otherwise. Stories allow us to connect and relate to characters in ways that other forms of writing cannot. That’s why we need to get rid of them or that’s why we need to make sure they stay.
Intuitively, this makes sense: we expect stories to speak to us. Non-intuitively — technically, theoretically — it’s much harder to measure. How do stories work? We know that they do – both sides of this debate insist that they do — but how do we know what will make stories real, relatable, or memorable?
My aim in this post is not to answer that question. If I could, I would be famous, and not a graduate student who mostly eats beans. It’s a question that draws literary study and cognitive science into close proximity, and that thinkers since antiquity have been trying to understand. What “works” on us? Instead, I’m going to explore one definition, which is technical and impossibly straightforward in all the ways I find refreshing and strange. In a 2020 study, Alderson-Day et. al wrote that fictional narratives place
“specific sociocognitive demands on the reader. Typically, a reader must track the mental states of multiple characters, following their beliefs, intentions, and desires through a narrative, to make sense of actions, decisions, and responses to events in the storyworld.”
I think it’s a wonderful idea. What’s specific to a story? Characters in narratives, and narratives that demand “sociocognitive” activity. Characters provide some of our strongest tethers to these inky worlds; particularly, critics argue, when readers identify with fictional characters. Book-banners make these identifications extreme: they talk about meeting gay, transgender, or black characters in a story, for example, in order to suggest that these encounters are “poisoning young minds.” Leigh Wambsganss, a lead organizer of the movement, once said on Steve Bannon’s show: “Those kinds of lifestyles shouldn’t be forced down the throats of families who don’t agree.” “Forced down the throats,” like “poison,” is an instant injection — into the bloodstream — of values that these organizations, at least, hold as contrary to their own.
But meeting fictional characters is more like meeting people. As we read stories, Alderson-Day’s work suggests, our minds are tracking several perspectives, assessing characters’ intentions and mental states just as we might for living, breathing humans. As we find fictional characters more lifelike, we might pay more attention, or feel closer to them; in fact, the trick of creating a convincing storyworld is not a trick so much as it is an ability to reproduce the familiar. Evan Kindley, writing on the history of fictional characters, explains that we’re wired by evolution to try and understand others’ minds: our interest in fictional characters occurs, “even when we know they aren’t real, humans and human-like entities are endlessly fascinating to us.” The advent of Artificial Intelligence that writes and chats like a human being — and our attraction to it — is all the more to his point.
This attraction is part of the “sociocognitive activity” of reading a story. Books can draw us into worlds and address readers across time, around the globe, as individuals. To add to our first question, then, one last time: what happens when we read stories that speak to us?
I mean literally. Alderson-Day and his team are going in an exciting new direction in the study of reading. They are honing in on the effects of direct speech, which they define as any spoken utterance housed in quotation marks: for example, “How neat!” Direct speech, held in opposition to other parts of a story, is an important example of the kinds of elements of stories that book-banners object to: the features of writing that make a story feel vivid, real, immediate, and intimate. Studied in isolation, it can also help to get at the intricacies of how our brains respond to writing.
In 2011, Yao et. al looked at fMRI responses for people silently reading short, simple stories with either direct or indirect speech. This is not powerful poetry. Indirect speech would be: “he said the cat is over there,” and direct speech: “he said, “the cat is over there.”” They found that both kinds of speech activated the auditory cortex, but direct speech did so more, in more places. It sets off what these researchers call “auditory imagery.”
Alderson-Day and his team later isolated direct speech from the other factors that might create these effects, like the use of quotation marks, or short, simple prose. They compared direct speech to direct thoughts (like, “she thought, ‘Should I get a dog?’”). Crucially, they found that these direct reference effects were specific to speech. Direct speech in a story elicits a response in the parts of your brain that are selective for voice perception. It simulates “the perceptual qualities of a character speaking out loud.” In your brain, it’s like hearing external, actual voices.
Characters speaking in a storyworld — whether speaking the mundane or lines that echo for generations — light up the parts of your brain that respond to speech. In other words, there isn’t a separate, unfiltered pathway while reading a story, in which unwelcome values are “stuffed down your throat.” In conversation with a person, I can be persuaded and have my mind changed, yes, and I am often more easily persuaded when I feel closer to the person speaking: but while in conversation, my mind is active in trying to make sense of the person across from me. Their ideas and arguments do not enter my bloodstream without me knowing. There is likewise no special power in characters to transmit values wholesale. Storyworlds, like this world, are places of encounter and assessment.
Alderson-Day’s team pushed these questions still further, to where their findings are the most uncertain and the most exciting. Does direct speech send your mind into the thorny thicket of trying to understand characters’ intentions? To get at what the speaker really means, even when they’re saying something else? In other words: to Theory of Mind regions? The answer might be yes. In these fMRI scans, direct speech set off the same areas that are engaged in determining a character’s communicative intent. It’s early days yet, but there are implications here for piecing together what actually happens when we read.
This work is still new, and my main point will stay simple. There is so much more to know about what happens between a reader and her text. Cognitive science is one way that researchers are piecing through the unknowns. In this book-banning moment, the intricacies of this relationship are harder to discern; the unknowns are scarier. Some metaphors hold greater sway. But “getting lost in a book,” for example, or reading as ingestion — though both useful, relatively ancient metaphors — do not quite capture the full activity of a mind on its way through a story. Alderson-Day’s research suggests that you’re never really lost, or at least your mind is still responding as it might to neighbor on the street. And in some ways, digesting a novel is like digesting a muffin; in others, it’s more like meeting people you know very little about, listening to them, watching for their cues, and wondering what it is, really, that they are trying to say.
I’m still developing what I want to say when people ask why I think we should read, why I study literature, and what bearing I think these texts and their characters have on the real world. I love the quiet space of reading a novel. I don’t like for that quiet to be overtaken by ideas of how it can ensnare your mind, can make you think things without you being aware of them, as though connecting to a book is clandestine and unfathomable. What’s exciting is that it is unfathomable — but it’s an everyday unfathomable. Almost a mundane unfathomable. How do stories do what they do? Sometimes, just by making it seem as though someone is speaking to you.