The Transformational Wonders of Story

Imagine being able to find just what you need to build courage, heal from grief, or excite your curiosity from literature. What if the elements of story could unlock our imaginations, emotions and even our psyche to improve our quality of life and mental health? Dr. Angus Fletcher will rock your world with his research and insights on the power of story — steeped in both the mystery of human emotion and the logic of science. He was a recent guest on Brene Brown’s Unlocking Us podcast and his dynamic enthusiasm is contagious. He takes a deep dive into the inventions in literature, the technologies that were created to help us understand, unravel — and grow — from the human experience in his recently released book — Wonderworks: the 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature:

A brilliant examination of literary inventions through the ages, from ancient Mesopotamia to Elena Ferrante, that shows how writers have created technical breakthroughs—rivaling any scientific inventions—and engineering enhancements to the human heart and mind. Literature is a technology like any other. –from Amazon.com

Dr, Angus Fletcher takes the blueprints for 25 literary inventions throughout history and explains how each can be viewed as both a narrative and scientific breakthrough. The result is a completely original deep dive through literary history—from Greek tragedy and Shakespeare to Virginia Woolf and Dr. Seuss—examining how each innovation provides us with distinct psychological benefits such as increasing creativity, alleviating trauma, boosting intelligence and elevating happiness. –– excerpted from the Show Notes, Brene Brown.com

As Dr. Fletcher so deftly explained to Brene, stories and especially memoirs, pull us into an intimate and safe space to explore our own complex emotions, perceptions and possibilities. He freely shared the books that had a meaningful impact in his own life and the transformational growth he tapped into as a result. Writers like Maya Angelou and Jane Austen offered insights and wisdoms that gave him agency to explore his own power to evolve in creative, engaging and entertaining ways.

Although I had never consciously thought about this, I found myself recalling the books, plays, movies and songs that made indelible impressions on me throughout my life. I can still vividly remember reading Shakespeare in my early teens, sitting cross-legged on my bed in a shabby second floor apartment we were living in temporarily. Sunlight was trying its best to peek through the dirty windows while downstairs neighbors were arguing. Yet I was oblivious to it all, having been transported far away to another space in time, captivated by the images those written words created in my mind and the characters who came to life page by page. Looking back, I can most definitely see how the books I read in my teen years informed me about life in ways that I otherwise would have never known. Without a healthy, solid family framework, books probably played a more meaningful role that I could have ever imagined.

As a young mother years later, another story touched me so profoundly that I named my middle son based on the main character of a heartwarming TV mini-series. I loved the core values and the affable, grounded demeanor of the lead male character who was always referred to by his last name, Damon. I could almost picture my infant son as a grown man possessing the same virtues. That is how my middle son got his first name, Damon.

There are countless other memories that I have been revisiting, looking for clues as to how stories told through music, plays, books, movies and TV shows contributed to my life now that Dr. Fletcher has illuminated these incredible transformational literary inventions.

Dr. Fletcher is a practitioner on story science with dual degrees in literature (PhD, Yale) and neuroscience (BS, University of Michigan). As you might imagine, my interest was really piqued when he and Brene discussed the neurobiological effects that literature can have on us because of my ongoing fascination with neuroscience. Dr. Fletcher’s research is devoted to exploring the psychological effects (cognitive, behavioral and therapeutic) of different narrative technologies.

The initial discovery of the psychological benefits of literature was made by the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, in 335 B.C The following excerpt from Smithsonian Magazine (March, 2021) succinctly captures Aristotle’s remarkable assessment:

Shortly after 335 B.C., within a newly built library tucked just east of Athens’ limestone city walls, a free-thinking Greek polymath by the name of Aristotle gathered up an armful of old theater scripts. As he pored over their delicate papyrus in the amber flicker of a sesame lamp, he was struck by a revolutionary idea: What if literature was an invention for making us happier and healthier? The idea made intuitive sense; when people felt bored, or unhappy, or at a loss for meaning, they frequently turned to plays or poetry. And afterwards, they often reported feeling better. But what could be the secret to literature’s feel-better power? What hidden nuts-and-bolts conveyed its psychological benefits?

After carefully investigating the matter, Aristotle inked a short treatise that became known as the Poetics. In it, he proposed that literature was more than a single invention; it was many inventions, each constructed from an innovative use of story. Story includes the countless varieties of plot and character—and it also includes the equally various narrators that give each literary work its distinct style or voice. Those story elements, Aristotle hypothesized, could plug into our imagination, our emotions, and other parts of our psyche, troubleshooting and even improving our mental function. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/eight-literatures-most-powerful-inventions-and-neuroscience-behind-how-they-work-180977168/

I have been so captivated by the revelations that Dr. Fletcher enthusiastically shared in the podcast with Brene, that I have listened to it three times. I also bought the book Wonderworks and am currently savoring every page, while simultaneously reading some really good fiction. Now I have a sort of three-D awareness of the connections I am making with the story and the characters. I’d describe it as an Imax theatre experience for books.

Each of the unique endorsements in Wonderworks will whet your appetite for the many intriguing aspects about to be revealed in this remarkable book. The one that really caught my attention was from Dr. Martin Seligman, the internationally esteemed psychologist. It was Dr. Seligman’s book, Flourish, that started me on my journey of mindfulness and self discovery in 2014. Dr. Seligman’s game changing work in positive psychology focused on raising the bar for the human condition through optimism, motivation and character. It was almost like reconnecting with an old trusted friend who was as excited as me about these new discoveries.

“Find one polymath. Take a profound knowledge of world literature. Add a deep knowledge of modern psychology and of neuroscience. Add a cupful of worldly wisdom. Stir in an enchanting prose style. Heat until bubbling. You have just baked unique, marvelous treat: Angus Fletcher’s Wonderworks.”Dr. Martin Seligman, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Positive Psychology Center, University of Delaware.

I will confess that the reason I just had to buy this book as soon as I heard this podcast was the fact that I was totally enchanted with the names that Dr. Fletcher had for these inventions. Here are just a few to tickle your imagination:

  • the invention of the sorrow resolver
  • the invention of the mind/eye opener
  • the invention of the butterfly immerser
  • the invention of the Valentine armor

Just to marinate your imagination in what each invention might offer, consider this. Dr. Fletcher shares that “valentine armor” was the technology invented by Jane Austen to help you bounce back from heartbreak and to also empower you to have friends that are different from yourself. If you find this tidbit fascinating, just wait til you listen to the podcast or dive into the book — or both! Prepare to be amazed. (If you just can’t wait, fast forward to about 48 minutes into the podcast and listen to Dr. Fletcher blow your mind with his fascinating learnings from Jane Austen.)

For all the modalities that are available to us for personal growth, how incredible to know that literature should most definitely be added to that list. Literature is such a unique teacher for both the experience and the emotion of it — a treasured opportunity to explore our own humanity in a rich and safe space. Dr. Fletcher uses Maya Angelou’s book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as an extraordinary example of how it encourages us to align with our own core values, and find the agency to help ourselves do the work we need to grow, to give ourselves self-care. This makes us more flexible and resilient. By getting stronger in yourself, you unearth the gift that keeps on giving — because you in turn can offer meaningful, empathic help to others.

Dr. Fletcher offers this quote as the heart of his whole book: “For whatever the power of truth may be, literature’s own special power has always lain in fiction. That wonder we construct. It is the invention that unbreaks the heart and brings us into hope and peace and love.

I am thoroughly enjoying Wonderworks, reading it slowly and soaking in the history, the creativity and the sheer wonderment of all that can be learned, healed and transformed through literature, theatre, music. Brew some tea or pour some wine….treat yourself to some upbeat, uplifting inspiration from Dr. Angus Fletcher. Oh and by the way, if you aren’t already enamored with him, just know that his favorite TV show as a young man was Gilmore Girls and he is currently reading Nancy Drew to his daughter for bedtime stories.

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