8-minute read

Sparking creativity through reading

An Ohio State expert explains how reading stories — from world-class literature to pulp fiction — can empower our brains to innovate at work.
When you hit an emotional or creative roadblock, read a good book

Angus Fletcher is a story scientist within Ohio State’s Project Narrative, where he combines neuroscience with literature to unlock what stories do to our brains.

“The source of human intelligence is what we would call story or narrative, our ability to plan or plot, to come up with innovative answers to problems,” Fletcher says. “The human brain is able to say, I want to start a company. I want to build something. I want to imagine a new political movement. Computers can’t do that.

“Stories activate anything your brain can do.”

Meaning stories aren’t just entertainment. They’re a form of technology that unlocks parts of our brain to do everything from create to emotionally heal. Fletcher explains this in his new book, "Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature."

And the storytelling tools he points to aren’t theoretical. He and his research team put them into practice to help corporations, the Department of Defense and the U.S. Army unlock creativity and innovation within employees or personnel.

Fletcher recently spoke to us about the power of stories.

You don’t focus on words or themes in literature but character and plot and other aspects. Why is that?
Students today go into classrooms and spend most of their time focusing on the words of literature, and it mostly produces frustration and angst. That’s because when you pick up your favorite books, you’re not thinking about the words. You’re thinking about the characters.

It’s like when you’re reading this interview. You’re not thinking about the words. You’re thinking about who’s talking. You’re entering the perspectives of the person asking the questions and the person answering them. What’s in your consciousness is the human stuff of minds and voices, not the textual stuff of syntax.

And you actually use that to help people in a variety of ways. How do you do that?
The first thing we do at Project Narrative is shift the focus onto what goes on in the brain. When your brain enters a story, it jumps out of your perspective into a character’s perspective. That’s some of the great fun of reading a book.

When you make that jump, you shift out of your biases. You shift out of your own hopes and fears. You let go of the things that prevent you from opening your mind to other possibilities. And that naturally opens you up to being more imaginative, more creative.
So when you’re working with a group, are there specific books you’d highlight and get to that creativity and innovation?
The short answer is no. Creativity is infinite and endless and not governed by rules and absolutes.
My research team is kind of like the special forces of the imagination. We come into Fortune 50 companies and identify what habits, what routines, they’re stuck in, and we use our library to identify a story that can disrupt that rut.

Our approach comes out of biology, and biology reveals that there are different tools for different situations. In one environment, a fish does really well, and in another environment, a bird does really well. What we do is come in and say, you’re stuck being the bird, let’s try to get you out of that and give you another way of thinking. Try being a fish or a cheetah or a butterfly.
What’s an example?
Let’s say a company is too obsessed with data. To make a decision, it needs to amass huge amounts of spreadsheets, crunch them through algorithms and employ a metric-based way of doing everything.

We know that just doesn’t work. There’s never enough data to make a perfect decision about the future, and the data you have is always biased by sampling and other factors. So companies caught in big-data paralysis need to get into the mentality of experimenting and trying new things in a small controlled way, empowering them to take a risk and make positive changes.

One of the things we do to help is give them children’s books about rule-breaking children, like Pippi Longstocking, the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. Immediately everyone remembers what it was like to be a kid. They remember how you learn as a child to be a little bit brave and bold and to mess up sometimes. You get rid of the fear you have as an adult that you need to be certain all the time.

Once we get people in that headspace, we start hitting them with problems their company is facing and we start to see how they react differently to those problems. What we see is they approach those problems more imaginatively and come up with more creative solutions instead of sitting still and waiting for data to arrive.

Your book is about the healing effects of literature. How do books heal people exactly?
Our ancestors discovered that by reading poems and stories, they felt better, and it’s the same today: when you read a book or watch a TV show, you often feel better. On a basic level, that can just be because you were bored, and the book gives you a feeling of purpose or interest. But literature can also have deeper therapeutic effects that were discovered in ancient Athens, where they developed Greek tragedy for military veterans. Greek tragedy has an effect called catharsis, which can help you overcome PTSD (post-traumatic stress syndrome).

Greek tragedy combines lots of different therapeutic techniques, from exposure therapy, to possibly eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and also a technique that involves the experience of helping someone else through trauma.

I talk about the technique in the book, but basically, it works like this. When you watch a tragedy, you know something bad is going to happen to a character before it happens. That puts you in the position of having survived the tragedy and being able to reach out to the character emotionally, to support them. This has an enormous therapeutic benefit. It builds self-efficacy in the brain.

Doctors have also discovered a second type of PTSD in the last 20 years. I’m working with Army vets now who have the second type of PTSD, which is numbness and the inability to feel. A lot of vets come back from war with a feeling of dissociation; they no longer feel life is real. That feeling is a kind of self-protection. The brain has gone through so much emotional pain that it shuts down all emotion, so you can no longer feel fear or anger or love or anything.

To help vets overcome that feeling, there’s a literary technique the Greeks developed that’s come back in modern literature. The technique involves a plot-twist into positive emotions, of surprising us into joy and gratitude and wonder.

That’s a way of alleviating your brain’s nervousness about emotion, so it can help reduce the second type of PTSD.

What books would you highlight to break through certain feelings?

First of all for creativity, the No. 1 thing we’ve found is Winnie the Pooh. Anyone who reads Winnie the Pooh will instantly feel more creative.

As far as something for sadness or sorrow, it depends on where it’s coming from. If your sadness is related to loneliness, the best thing is pulp fiction, reading it or watching it on TV with a friend. Literally almost anything you find enjoyable that’s a pulp-fiction serial, whether it’s “Stranger Things,” “Orange is the New Black” or “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Any TV show you watch with friends activates a complex chemical cascade in your brain that makes you feel less lonely, more close to someone else. It’s a real feeling.

As far as something like despair, Renaissance poets discovered a technology that can imitate the effect of LSD, which activates our visual cortex, this huge area at the back of our brain. It overwhelms your brain with vivid images, connecting you to a powerful sense of beauty. People often say it creates an intense feeling of spiritual experience.

A classic example is the songs and sonnets of the 17th-century poet John Donne. Terrence Malick movies also use a version of the technology to leave you feeling like: “I have no idea what’s going on, but this is so beautiful.”

All this literature has the effect of locking your brain in a moment of “whaaat?” And making you feel there’s something bigger and more exciting in life without the negative downside of taking LSD. Literature is only using your brain’s own chemistry, reshifting what’s already there.

What book would you recommend to someone? And what is your favorite book?
I recommend Maya Angelou’s "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." It empowers emotional and intellectual growth. Its psychological effect is to make you more confident and daring. Not because it has some message or lesson. But because of its innovative literary technique. You can just read the book and it will shift the way your brain functions.

As I go through my life, I have different favorite books, but because of my own background with people who have been in the military, my favorite book is "Mrs. Dalloway" by Virginia Woolf. It has some exquisite parts about a World War I veteran who suffers severe trauma. It’s always been very healing and inspiring to me.

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