The Science of Storytelling: Guest Post by Olivia Hofer

Anna here! As it’s a five-Saturday month, today I have a wonderful treat for you: a guest post about story psychology and neurology by Olivia Hofer, who blogs at Story Matters. I’ll be back next week with another science post, but for now, let’s all read what Olivia has to say!

Those of us who read know the wonder of stories. They transport us to places and times and cultures and customs beyond our own, so vivid we can hear and touch and taste them. They transform us into people we are not, drawing on our common human traits to allow us to feel things we’ve never felt before. They enable us to experience, in a sense, things that can be understood only through experience, so that we may both make sense of the world for our own sakes and empathize with others who have undergone trials we haven’t. It’s magic.

It’s also science.

Let’s look at a few of the ways fiction demonstrably impacts us — and what that means to writers.

Increased empathy

Empathy — the ability to understand and feel the emotions of another — is an essential social skill, and arguably one of the major factors that distinguishes human beings from other creatures. And fiction has the capacity to nourish that ability.

According to studies, literary fiction in particular develops emotional literacy. Rich with subtext and nuance, it forces us to try our minds and sort out for ourselves what various characters are thinking and feeling. With so much unsaid, we must fill in the blanks. It’s a bit of an emotional logic puzzle.

And perhaps because of this, when researchers tested one thousand participants in theory of mind, by asking them to identify the emotions of strangers based solely on photos of eyes, those with greater familiarity with literary works scored higher than those exposed primarily to genre fiction. Previous studies measured the theory of mind of participants who read either a literary or genre fiction excerpt. Those who were given the literary sample were better able to read others’ emotions afterward.

Genre fiction, in its defense, has virtues in its own right. Studies suggest that reading books such as the Harry Potter series may alter attitudes toward marginalized people groups. The potential for societal impact is enormous.

As we write, we should consider the value of subtlety, and the impact that our portrayal of different groups might have. The power of fiction, on the individual and the societal level, cannot be overestimated. We as storytellers have a unique potential for influence. Let us use it wisely.

Further reading:

Literary fiction readers understand others’ emotions better, study finds

“Did you feel as if you hated people?”: emotional literacy through fiction

Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy

The Greatest Magic of Harry Potter: Reducing Prejudice

Sensory and motor activation

Spanish researchers found that when participants read words associated with distinct scents—like the Spanish words for coffee and perfume—they showed activity in the primary olfactory cortex that didn’t occur when they read “neutral” words such as the term for chair. In another study, reading metaphors that drew tactile analogies—phrases like “velvet voice” and “leathery hands”—activated the sensory cortex. This didn’t happen when the participants read descriptions such as “pleasing voice” and “strong hands”, which didn’t evoke tactile imagery.

And something similar happens as we read about the characters’ exploits. The motor regions of the brain that we use when performing physical activities and observing others’ movement are also activated when we read about characters doing the same things.

It seems there really is science behind “show, don’t tell”. Evocative imagery immerses readers in the storyworld.

Further reading:

Metaphors activate sensory areas of brain

The Neuroscience of Your Brain on Fiction

Neurological changes

And these effects may last well after we close the cover. One study found that reading the thriller Pompeii by Robert Harris heightened connectivity in language and sensory motor regions of the brain that remained hours after reading assigned passages and at least five days after finishing the book. The researchers believe the changes may last much longer, especially when we’ve read one of our favorite novels.

Our writing will likely stay with our readers, consciously or subconsciously, for some time to come. Consider the emotional as well as the thematic takeaways you hope to impart to your readers.

Further reading:

A novel look at how stories may change the brain

And that’s not to mention the stress relief reading provides, as well as the enormous impact it has on young minds.

Stories, it would seem, are entwined with our very human nature. At last we are beginning to understand how they so move us. And if these are the effects we can see, how much greater those yet unseen?

Thank you, Olivia, for that wonderful post! It was absolutely fascinating. What do you think of these impacts of storytelling? Did you know about any of them beforehand? Does this change how you think about writing? Share in the comments (and be sure to thank Olivia)!


What’s in a Name? How Linguistics Helps Your Story World–Guest Post by Brennan D.K. Corrigan

Good morning, friends! Anna here. July is a fifth-Saturday month, and you know what that means: an extra-special Fifth Saturday Post here on The Story Scientist. Today, I have a guest post by my good friend, author and conlanger (if you don’t know what that means, read on to find out) Brennan D.K. Corrigan. Enjoy!

Asengae! Num Perènen Koringgan noth, neh num jaenoryu Anno rinaafal naysiÿenafe (iÿenafe anaysa ja) vana šathu. Rikunind šef hato ngeleoval!

            Hello! I am Brennan Corrigan, and I am writing this article for my friend Anna as her conlanger (creator of languages). Many thanks to her for this honor!

What is written and translated above is in the Toriqayse language, which I created for the serial Nations of Tiynalta. Linguistics has been a passion of mine for six years, and in that time I have studied Spanish, Latin, Chinese, Japanese, Turkish, Quechua, Esperanto, Korean, Klingon, Na’vi, and Trigedasleng. My novel, Winter’s Corruption, features several of my constructed languages. I am also the conlanger for Anna’s novels.

As much as I love language, and as much as I would love to see an immense, full-grammar, thousand-word-dictionary conlang in every speculative fiction work, I have to respect that this isn’t always possible or necessary. Many people only need some suitably foreign-sounding names to differentiate aliens and elves from the average Joe. But what makes a language sound foreign? Just as importantly, what makes that foreignness consistent and realistic? It comes down to three principles of linguistics. What you need to know are phonology, phonotactics, and Romanization.

Phonology: What sounds are you using?

Every language has a unique set of sounds that sets it apart from any other. Certainly, common sounds overlap between languages, but others are more specific, giving that language a special auditory “flavor.”

Adding and subtracting sounds from your English inventory is a good way to make a foreign phonology. English lacks any front rounded vowels, but German does have two, written as ü and ö. Welsh has several consonants that are foreign to English, such as the alveolar lateral fricative, written as ll, and a trilled r. Removing English consonants is just as important as adding foreign ones. English’s th sounds, as in thin and this, are extremely rare in other languages, which is why many foreign accents change them to z or s. Without having practiced them for their whole lives, foreigners easily mispronounce them.

How, though, to choose which sounds should stay or go? As it turns out, linguists have been very careful to classify every sound that the human mouth can make into a handy chart, the International Phonetic Alphabet. Every consonant and vowel has a neat little place on the table, which describes how exactly your mouth pronounces it. (These descriptions are the names used above to describe ü, ö, and ll. Don’t worry about them immediately; that will come as you get familiar with the table.) The easiest realistic way to add or subtract consonants is to take out particular rows or columns, for example, the voiced plosives, or the labial consonants. (N.B.: In natural languages, the voiced consonants hardly ever occur unless their unvoiced partners are also there.) With vowels, I go for a small number (5-6) that are far away from each other on the table, so no two get confused with each other. The table may look very foreign to begin with, but type “IPA for English” (or any other language) into Google and some nice pronunciation guides will come up.

Phonotactics: Where are you using that sound?

Every language has rules that govern where sounds can appear inside syllables. English would never have names like Nguyen (Vietnamese), Mbanta (Igbo), or Tsuda (Japanese), because English doesn’t allow those consonants or consonant clusters to be at the beginning of a syllable. However, any of those clusters could come at the end of an English syllable. Play around with the beginnings and endings of your syllables, and find clusters that you like that aren’t native to English. Or, go the other way: Restrict the creation of syllables so that English’s clusters aren’t possible in your language.

Romanization: How do you spell it?

The big difference for conlangs between written and spoken media is the fact that in writing, every word has to be seen and spelled out. Thus, I take time to make sure my spellings look really, really cool… but not without some restrictions.

First, your spellings should be regular. Each sound should be spelled the same way everywhere, because if your readers do end up trying to pronounce your names, you should be kind to them. English’s radical and unpredictable spellings are the product of thousands of years of history, and unless you want to map out every historical spelling change for your fictional world, go easy on the reader.

Second, be careful with accent marks. I love the exotic look of them as much as the next conlanger, but they must have purpose. Otherwise, they’re just a fancy-looking distraction. Do some research into accent marks that you think look cool, in order to learn why they’re there.

As with accent marks, research digraphs or trigraphs that you think will make an aesthetic impact on your work. I personally love the Welsh and Old English systems for representing consonants. I learned about them so recently that they have yet to be added to any new conlang, but soon they will be!

Conclusion: Have Fun With It!

 Conlanging is a big, amazing pool of linguistics fun madness obsession general nerdery stuff, and this article is only the very shallow end. Okay, maybe more of an ocean. There are big syntax whales down there somewhere. Whatever it is, I hope this introduction has given you a good starting point. Ašetyuves tilariy na! (Good travels!)

Thank you so much, Brennan, for posting here today! Well, readers, what do you think? Have you ever invented names, or even a full-blown language? Do you think you might in the future? Do you have any questions for Brennan? (If so, I will relay them to him and try to get them answered as soon as possible for you!) Tell me (and Brennan, haha, he’ll probably be watching this) in the comments!