Most of us learned at some point about catharsis, the ancient Greek concept that tragic stories give us a kind of emotional cleanse, which is meant to explain the enduring appeal of tragedies—a reason Achilles, Oedipus, Romeo and Juliet are still with us. Catharsis is true enough, but there is so much more to why we humans have been drawn to stories from our earliest days.
Having read The Iliad or seen the movie, Troy, do you remember how it feels to witness the sequence of Achilles’ pain at his friend Patroclus’ murder, followed by his determination for revenge on Hector? We share the heat of Achilles’ anger, the runaway train of his drive for justice.
We have always known that while sitting with a book or in a theater, our hearts pound, we hold our breath, we cry. We say, “It really got to me,” and pass the book along or tell the story of our own experience of it.
I recently came across new information from the world of brain science that helps illuminate the tremendous power story holds over us. Scientific researchers, says Carmine Gallo in his 2015 book, The Storyteller’s Secret, have learned that a thought alone can elicit a ‘somatic state,’ meaning the thought triggers the same regions of the brain that would be activated if you were actually experiencing the event in real life.
He goes on to explain that this makes listening to a story akin to learning via flight simulator, having an experience barely removed from the real thing. Stories give us a chance to learn the lessons of being human—with the most important ones living through the ages and being reiterated in story after story—without having to personally experience them. In this way, we internalize the messages; stories have probably been one of our most powerful survival tools.
I know that I was told as a child not to dive into shallow water; but it was reading Joni Erickson’s account of diving into shallow water, hitting bottom, feeling something short circuit in her spine and being unable to move that actually changed my diving behavior.
Back to the story of Achilles…We stay with him through the first part of his emotional ride as the pain of loss mutates to desire for revenge. But many of us will part ways with him when he takes his revenge a step further and drags Hector’s body behind his chariot. Achilles feels victorious in that moment; we more likely feel sick as we experience a violation of decency. Achilles has not only crossed a line; he has taught us that there is a line—and it is one we do not wish to cross ourselves, no matter how grieved. Even for those of us most prone to vengeful feelings, this behavioral limit is likely internalized by witnessing the story.
Safety, maturity, empathy. All of these can be learned through story. Perhaps this is what Gallo means by “the storyteller’s secret.” There may be no greater power or legacy than to provide a means for illumination and transformation via storytelling.