The unique ability of stories to generate powerful emotions within us is a well-known phenomenon. Neuroscientists, Vittorio Gallese, and Leonardo Fogassi, explain that the culprit in our brains is a system of “mirror neurons” which causes our bodies to experience a story as though it were happening to us – even though we know for a fact that it’s not.
That’s why I was not surprised when a good friend of mine said, “I’m teaching a class debunking the ‘DaVinci Code.'” I just smiled. I wondered, “Why does the DaVinci Code need debunking?” It is an admittedly false story. It’s a novel.
Finally, I said it, “If Dan Brown had simply issued a one sentence statement to the effect that ‘Mary Magdalene gave birth to Jesus’ children and hid them in France,’ would anyone have listened?” Would anyone have cared? Would it have caused a raging international debate and a documentary on the National Geographic channel contemplating the possibilities? Would five or more books have been written for the sole purpose of proving that this theory was false? Somehow I doubt it.
So, why all the controversy? Why all the fuss? A novel, by definition is a false story. Nothing in a novel is supposed to be taken as true. Yet, somehow, millions of readers of the DaVinci Code were able to suspend rational thought and for the first time in their life seriously consider whether Mary Magdalene might have given birth to Jesus’ children and hidden them in France. This phenomenon, in turn, created a crisis among the true believers who consider this theory a heresy. The crisis was so severe that it spawned an entire genre of literature that could easily be called “The Anti-DaVinci Code.” But why?
Why are we unlikely to believe a factual statement made in a vacuum, such as “Mary Magdalene gave birth to Jesus’ children and hid them in France,” but when that same message is clothed in an absolutely captivating and suspenseful drama, somehow we are open to its message? The answer lies in how our brains process information.
There are three sections of the brain: (1) reptilian; (2) mid-brain; and (3) forebrain. The reptilian brain is always functioning behind the scenes without conscious thought. It keeps our heart beating, and our lungs breathing. The MID-brain is the non-rational part of the brain. It controls our animalistic reaction to things. It allows us to have such emotions as fear, anger, love, passion. It drives our fight-or-flight reaction.
The FOREbrain is the rational part of the brain. It’s what allows us to step outside of ourselves and look inward. It is allows us to see ourselves thinking. It allows you to hover outside of yourself and observe yourself reading this page, and be consciously aware that you are reading this page; and be aware that you are aware. It allows us to ask the question “why?” It allows us to analyze a situation after it has happened and draw lessons from it. It allows us to recognize patterns in order to predict the future.
Suspenseful, highly emotional stories enter our consciousness through the MID-brain. Bullet point lists of boring facts and most power point slides enter our consciousness through the FOREbrain. That’s why most people fall asleep during power point presentations. The data is sterile and uninteresting. It’s the kind of stuff we need to memorize for a test.
Compelling stories, on the other hand, have the ability to flood our bodies with chemicals that cause us to experience anger, fear, happiness, sadness, excitement, anticipation. But why is this?
Neuroscientists, such as Vittorio Gallese, and Leonardo Fogassi, and psychoanalysts, such as Maxwell Maltz, tell us that our bodies do not have the ability to distinguish between a real event and one that we’ve only imagined. That’s why our hearts literally beat faster during a scary movie, and why we look over our shoulder on the walk to our car through the dark parking lot afterward. That’s also why some people walk or talk in their sleep, and why teenage boys experience “wet dreams.” Our bodies are merely acting out what is happening in our brains as though it were real. This is a very well-known and accepted phenomenon. A good storyteller can make your mouth water just by describing the act of biting into a freshly cut lemon in vivid detail.
That’s the part of our brain that a good story touches. Once your emotions are involved, it’s too late. The FOREbrain has to take notice. Something is going on inside. When you are feeling happy, sad, excited or scared, your FORE-brain says, “Why am I feeling this way? Maybe the story is TRUE!” Once we start saying things like “what if? and “maybe,” the door to our belief systems has been opened, even if just by a hair. We are suddenly willing to consider “facts” that we would never consider if they had tried to enter in the form of a bullet point list – through the front door of the brain.