Religious narratives have captured and compelled humanity for centuries
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What Religion Can Teach Us about Our Brains’ Addiction to Stories

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Shakespeare said that art is a mirror held up to nature. The nature is your nature, and all of these wonderful poetic images of mythology are referring to something in you…As Novalis said, ‘The seat of the soul is there where the inner and outer worlds meet.’ —Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

As a person driven by science, I often dismissed the world of faith. I tended to look at the phenomenon of religion as different versions of a kind of pathology: an “organized panic about death,” to borrow a somewhat facetious phrase I hear from time to time.

But to pit science against religion as if they are mutually exclusive, which I think many if not all of us are guilty of doing (or having done at some point), results from an insufficient understanding of the complex nature of human existence. And that’s perfectly understandable. Humans are complicated! We are still a long way off from understanding all the intricacies of the brain, but we’ve made some enlightening headway…pun intended. So let’s forgive our sins of ignorance and dig in.

It turns out when you put science and religion together you uncover some valuable insights into our psychological relationship to storytelling.

Religion is storytelling

Religion Is Storytelling

The Bible, the Quran, the Tripitaka: these sacred texts serve as guidebooks to religions. But far from instruction manuals, they are detailed moral stories rich in symbolic messaging.

Tiziana Dearing, Co-Director of the Center for Social Innovation at Boston College, weighs in on the role of storytelling in religion: “Historically, communities have relied heavily on stories and narrative to create, enforce, and maintain culture, and as a core mechanism for teaching their norms and values. Therefore, stories are as fundamental to a religious tradition as any other [cultural] practice. In the New Testament, for example, there is a reason that Jesus does his teaching through parables. He understood the importance of the narrative tradition for people—not only as a way of understanding important ideas, but also as a way of spreading those ideas.”

Religious Narratives Stand the Test of Time Because They Speak to the Nature of Human Existence

Religious stories are incredibly powerful at motivating human behavior. Just think of the adage WWJD—What Would Jesus Do? Dearing explains, “it is a signal that specifically says, ‘Go back to the religious narrative of our tradition, and let that literally determine what you do.'” We can certainly think of both negative (the Crusades) and positive (World Vision) examples of how powerful religious narratives can be in driving action.

But what is it that makes religious stories so compelling?

Dearing puts it this way: “Genuine human connection—and therefore the best of human action—is rooted in empathy. The best way to foster empathy is through direct, authentic human contact. We can’t always create that direct encounter…but we can create stories that bring another’s experience alive for the listener in a way that fosters such empathy.” Indeed, stories that appeal to emotion are some of the most powerful.

Dr. Francis Clooney, Director for the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard, echoes the argument that religious stories arise from and shape human experience: “Even if our lives are not epic, the great stories of faith will help us in the small struggles of our lives. We [often] imitate the characters who impress us most.” He goes on to explain that the lasting power of religious narratives over the centuries is due to the fact that they contain timeless elements—a journey, a crisis, a test, losing and then finding one’s way, choosing to go it alone or be with others, love lost and found, loss, revenge, conquest, etc.—that shed light on human struggles and opportunities that exist today. These stories appeal to emotion and give meaning to our current situation and thus help us get through it and build community.

Clearly, religious stories have a deep connection to things that seem to be fundamental to the human experience: our need for social interaction, community building, moral guidance, and our drive to find meaning.

Our Psychological Relationship to Stories

In his book Maps of Meaning, Dr. Jordan Peterson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, argues that the practice of storytelling itself (both creation and consumption) is an attempt to formalize the constituent elements of human experience for the purposes of finding meaning and guiding action.

So what are the constituent elements of human experience and how are they manifested in religious texts?

The constituent elements of human experience

Peterson describes three constituent elements of human experience:

  1. The known, explored territory, familiar culture, which can be a place of order or tyranny
  2. The unknown, unexplored territory, chaotic nature, which is a place of creation and destruction
  3. The knower, or a continual act of exploration and repression that tries to transform the unknown into the known

These constituent elements of human experience are the building blocks of many if not all religious narratives. Think of the symbols of Mother Nature (wild, chaotic, unpredictable, unknown), and those of Kings (typically men—cultured, protecting a kingdom, orderly, the rule of law, the known). Think of the protagonist, the hero or the moral leader who is tested or sent on a journey to face new obstacles and learn how to deal with them.

Religious stories portray the dynamic interrelationship between these constituent elements of human experience. As humans (knowers) are constantly engaged in a process of moving from what is to what should be through encountering and acting on new (unknown) phenomena to learn and build knowledge (known), religious texts offer a moral roadmap for guiding human action.

That this process is the impetus of humanity is evidenced by the size and the neurophysiological function of the neocortex in the human brain, which is responsible for exploratory, creative and reasoning behavior. Psychology has taught us that this most recent evolution of the brain resulted in increased intelligence, behavioral versatility, and breadth of experience, planning and intentionality, and controlled programs of action and regulation. All the components required to help us navigate our increasingly complex environments.

Furthermore, electroencephalograms (EEG—a type of brain imaging) show that our brains are in fact wired for the purpose of transforming novel stimuli into learning and action, and recent research involving unprecedented brain imaging has shown that compelling narratives activate far-reaching, complex networks in the brain, some of the same networks involved in conscious thought.

The compelling argument Peterson presents is that stories are a symbolic expression of how our brains work. Stories describe the process of finding meaning and choosing action by building a complete picture of all the constituent elements of human experience. When you tell a good story it grabs people on a fundamentally human (and neurological) level, and as religious texts have shown, you can influence and motivate millions over centuries by telling a good story.

It’s through the psychology of storytelling that I’ve come to understand how science and religion are not at odds with each other, they are two sides of the same coin. To adapt a phrase from Joseph Campbell: “The seat of the soul is where science and religion meet.”

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Nicola is an international award-winning writer, editor and communication specialist based in Toronto. She has stamped her career passport all over the communication industry in publishing, digital media, travel and advertising. She specializes in print and digital editorial and content marketing, and writes about travel, food, health, lifestyle, psychology and personal finance for publications ranging from the Toronto Star and WestJet Magazine to Tangerine Bank and Fidelity Investments. Nicola is owner and principal of communication consultancy Think Forward Communication, and Editor-in-Chief at AnewTraveller.com. Nicola revels in the visceral, experiential side of travel, and will passionately argue for its psychological paybacks, especially after a few glasses of wine. You can contact her at nicola.lauren.brown@gmail.com

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