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Posted: December 7, 2008 5:00 a.m.

The power of stories

The power of stories to transcend time, culture and language is unequaled. Think of the Iliad, written over 3,000 years ago by Homer. Current movie versions have Brad Pitt as Achilles and Diane Kruger as Helen of Troy. You can download the movie to your iPod and watch it during your lunch break at work.

Our affinity for stories such as the Iliad and the Odyssey tells us something about our evolutionary history and about our emotional and empathetic development. We know when we've heard a good story. According to Raymond A. Mar, an assistant professor of psychology at York University of Toronto, we know when we have been engaged whether it be fiction or nonfiction. This engagement in a narrative comes through "psychological realism - recognizable emotions and believable interactions among characters." We are able to detect psychological realism exceptionally well and tell when something rings false.

The best stories, the ones that are retold over generations and across cultures, do more than tell a believable tale. These narratives "capture" their readers through strong emotional identification with the story's characters. This is a state of immersion that psychologists call "narrative transport." Our knowledge and life experiences contribute to our ability to be transported by a story, but our empathetic skills are central to narrative emotions, the more easily we can be transported, regardless of the story.

A classic study by Fritz Heider and Mary-Ann Simmel in 1944 at Smith College demonstrated our tendency to create stories out of abstract images. These psychologists showed people an animation of a pair of triangles and a circle moving around a square. When asked what was happening, participants attributed intentions and motivations to the shapes, such as, "The Circle is chasing the triangles." Other studies since then have confirmed a human predilection to make characters and narratives out of whatever we see in the world around us.

Researchers continue to examine storytelling's power and pervasiveness, and look for ways to harness that power. The influence of Hollywood films on smoking habits of teens is an example of such power. Researchers are now investigating how stories can enhance social kills and promote positive health messages by acting as simulators for the brain. These efforts, combined with modern technologies for delivering the story, stand to further increase the beneficial contributions that stories have made in our society.

Dr. Weekley is a clinical psychologist and new resident of Covington. He specializes in the treatment of adults for depression, anxiety, relationship problems and medical issues. He can be reached at (770) 441-9244.

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