Professor Angus Fletcher has discovered the incredible effects stories have on our minds. They flood us with mood-altering hormones, boost intelligence and even teach us how to be better lovers. Writer at Large Neil Mackay talks to the man behind the science

DISNEY is bad for your health. War stories flood your brain with love hormones. Crime fiction builds IQ. Game Of Thrones turns you into a victim. And you can become a Special Forces soldier by reading Jane Austen.

Beavering away in his neuroscience laboratory, Professor Angus Fletcher has uncovered the “science of stories” – how books, plays, movies, TV shows and poetry affect both our minds and bodies.

Fletcher – a Scot whose parents emigrated to America – is a true polymath: both a neuroscientist and Yale-educated doctor of literature.

He has combined his twin passions to unlock the psychological, physiological and pharmacological effects literature has on humans.

His work ushers in new forms of mental-health treatments, and is being studied by the US military and used by entertainment giants like Netflix to sculpt the perfect story.

Fletcher, whose new book Wonderworks: Literary Invention And The Science Of Stories, charts these discoveries, sat down with The Herald to discuss how literature is the most important technology humans ever invented.

Disney’s a downer

“DISNEY’S fairytales make us less happy,” Fletcher says. Much of Fletcher’s work studies the effect on the mind of specific stories. Some release “happy hormones”, others improve us psychologically, restoring wellbeing. Disney, however, can be destructive.

“Disney stories are all about good things happening to good people – relentlessly,” Fletcher explains. “They teach our brain this cause and effect. If you go to Disney feeling sad – which is often when you do go to Disney, because you’re looking to feel good about yourself – your brain starts to think: if good things happen to good people and I’m not feeling happy, then there’s something wrong with me. If I’m not a good person and bad things happen to bad people, then bad things are going to keep happening to me.”

Disney films cause a temporary “vicarious bump” of happiness. Viewers watch a film like Cinderella and feel briefly “up”, but happiness soon evaporates and negativity kicks in. Disney creates a “fatalistic, pessimistic view. Disney increases the likelihood that you’ll be sad about yourself or angry at others. Paranoia is part of the Disney story”.

The reverse is true with “real” fairy tales - like Brothers Grimm stories such as Little Red Riding Hood. In these, “terrible things happen to everybody. Good things happen to idiots and bad people. This teaches our brain that ultimately good things happen for no reason. To humans, that’s incredibly healthy because it gives us hope in moments of despair. That’s a positive story.”

The same goes for classic sitcoms – very similar to ancient Roman comedies where “good things happen to ridiculous people”. Think of anything from Dad’s Army to Derry Girls.

“Nobody is virtuous or morally upstanding but they still get to be happy. That’s a really healthy story to tell: you’re not perfect but that’s okay, you can still have joy.”

All cartoons aren’t bad for you, though. Pixar’s Up was deliberately designed to lift viewers’ spirits. Fletcher, who has spent time with Pixar’s team, says the film followed the same process Steve Jobs used to design the iPhone: reverse engineering. Jobs – one of the brains behind Pixar – wanted a particular iPhone user experience and worked backwards from there.

Pixar wanted the end of Up to literally lift audiences “up” so designed the film backwards to its bleak beginning, ensuring a big emotional journey. Jobs, Fletcher believes, thought similarly to Shakespeare –intuiting exactly what audiences want. “Story is a technology, after all,” says Fletcher.

War and love drugs

HOMER’S epic The Iliad – which recounts the Trojan War – is a great example, says Fletcher, of the “chemical responsiveness of literature”. He has studied in the lab how this bloody tale floods the brain with oxytocin, the love hormone linked to bonding between mothers and babies, and ties like friendship.

“Literature,” says Fletcher, “can be therapeutic. It has a way of triggering neurochemical cascades.”

Fletcher discovered that The Iliad – and other books which place readers at the heart of battlefield violence where comrades group together to defeat an enemy – releases chemicals which flood the body with a sense of courage and friendship. A similar book might be Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings, where brave friends overcome insurmountable odds.

“Courage is a chemical response that comes when we’re scared,” Fletcher says. It’s closely linked to oxytocin’s ‘bonding effect’. “If we were standing together and something scary happens, the fact you were there would release oxytocin in my brain, it would mix with fear chemicals – that adrenal response – and it would give me the strength to stand and fight.

“Literature figures out how to give you that entire experience without anyone actually being there with you, or without there being anything to make you scared. The classic example is The Iliad. It’s terrifying.”

Fletcher, who uses literature in work with military survivors of trauma, says not all war-themed stories, though, are good for the soul. “Game Of Thrones would ultimately probably not be very good for us and might actually increase anxiety. Fantasy can be positive if the characters experience growth that’s translatable. Game Of Thrones is a bit sadistic – it exists to punish you and make you scared. It makes you feel fragile.”

In George RR Martin’s books almost everyone is amoral, betrayal is constant, and friendship relatively meaningless. It’s much more likely to release fear chemicals, than love hormones. This kind of literature makes you feel victimised.

Where the written word really goes into reverse gear and terrorises readers is in religious texts. “The discovery that literature could generate fear was made in the ancient world by powerful people – priests and regents – who wanted to tell stories of gods and hell as a way of controlling people.”

This kind of fear can be “traumatic”, says Fletcher. “It becomes lodged in the memory, we lose control over it.”

Happy Oedipus

NOT all dark literature is bad for you, though. The Ancient Greeks, says Fletcher, came up with “one of the earliest discoveries about what literature could do to help process fears”. It was upsetting drama – Greek tragedy.

Aristotle the philosopher wrote about the phenomenon “catharsis” – the purging of negative feelings through watching plays like Oedipus, which ends in despair and the protagonist blinding himself.

Fletcher says: “Greek tragedy uncovered a series of mechanisms that work procedurally in the brain to help get out that traumatic fear and help the brain process it so that you can remove those symptoms.

“The best way to make people feel like they’ve self-efficacy is to have them help somebody who’s experiencing what they’ve experienced. That’s why we’ve survivor groups. But there’s lots of problems with survivor groups – people often don’t like being helped by others. In literature, however, all that friction disappears. With an imaginary person like Oedipus we can reach out to empathetically. This makes us feel we can help others with their trauma, and that in our brain cues up the belief that we can help ourselves.”

Vicarious Victorians

WHEN it comes to empathy, turn to Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. Their works forge a sense of shared caring. Victorian novels are rich in “the apology”, says Fletcher. Think of Great Expectations or Jude The Obscure where we get inside characters’ heads, ‘hearing’ them regret their actions. “We get direct access to people’s remorse and their sense of vulnerability,” says Fletcher. “That automatically elicits an empathetic response.”

Fletcher is currently experimenting in the lab with two works: one, where a character simply apologises; and the other, where readers get inside the character’s head and “feel” their regret.

Fletcher found readers experienced “increased empathy and lowered anger in response to the second way of writing”.

Netflix is McDs

MODERN storytelling has become “industrialised”, says Fletcher. “We’re getting the refined sugar of literature from Netflix. They’re just trying to get you to constantly binge watch – tapping into hypnotic centres. Literature is like food. It’s possible to eat so badly you make yourself sick.”

Fletcher has worked with “some of the largest producers at Netflix”, adding: “I’m not here to defend them.”

However, he’s not being snobbish. Fletcher also believes most “high culture” does little for the soul either. “It’s often a vehicle for elites to express their views and it’s not emotionally innovative.”

Good storytelling – whether high or low-brow – helps people emotionally. When it comes to Netflix, it’s simply escapist. It’s the difference between watching gladiators at the Coliseum and visiting the Athenian theatre. “Escapism is when a story puts you in an unreal world and you feel happier there. When you come back to your actual life, you feel depressed, unfulfilled.”

The modern world’s epidemic of depression, anxiety and anger may be connected to the dominance of mass-market entertainment. “Certain types of story are basically wiping out almost all others like an invasive species,” he says.

“There’s not the generative diversity of new stories that’s so biologically important because we’re just being fed the same master story over and over. It crimps culture and you see just how lost people feel nowadays because there aren’t new stories coming out.”

Most Netflix shows follow repeating formulae. Think of dramas like You, 13 Reasons Why, and Dirty John – all very similar, extracting the same emotional effect.

However, a little junk storytelling isn’t bad, says Fletcher -–just like a little chocolate isn’t bad. Enjoying a Netflix show won’t ruin your mind any more than a few sweets will ruin your body. “The problem is our culture just keeps feeding us the same thing,” Fletcher adds. “That’s what’s causing us to be unhealthy – the lack of diversity in our diet.”

Chill with Hamlet

SHAKESPEARE did something revolutionary with Hamlet. The Danish prince famously does nothing after his father’s murder. Shakespeare, Fletcher says, told his audience not to act on their first impulse if they’re wronged – revenge – but to process their pain instead.

“Hamlet is a revenge play. Up to that point people had always thought if something bad happens to you, attack back. Anger, strength, manliness was the answer. So, there’s all these revenge plays prior to Hamlet which are just 90 minutes of blood – then the audience goes out into the streets and watches the bear-baiting. Shakespeare says ‘what if something bad happens to you and instead of being angry, your brain realises anger was a response to being hurt, and beneath that hurt is grief, and your brain starts to think, why do I have that grief’. Your brain starts to process that grief by thinking about what you’ve lost, and as you process that grief you feel gratitude for that person. Your pain is mixed with gratitude and love, and that’s how healing works. Throughout the play, while Hamlet is ruminating on his lost father, you get autobiographical recall in your own brain – you start remembering the people you’ve lost, and you go through that mourning process. In the modern world, we never take time to grieve.”

Be a better lover

SO, some literature does things chemically to us like The Iliad, while other literature therapeutically “teaches” us how to behave, like Hamlet. Sometimes, though, literature effectively invents ways in which humans see the world. Sappho, the ancient Greek poet, invented much of the language of love that we still use today. Expressions like your heart quickening or love making you shake, or how passion turns you tongue-tied – these are all ideas first expressed by Sappho.

“Love existed before Sappho but what she did is teach us to be better at love,” says Fletcher. Until Sappho, literature never dared venture into a place where people disclosed their emotional vulnerability.

“Millions of love poems and songs” have copied Sappho. “They’re imitating her,” says Fletcher. Romance movies like Titanic mimic her too. Thanks to Sappho, “we’ve a culture where we feel more comfortable disclosing ourselves because she made that model public. Prior to that it didn’t exist, it was nowhere in culture”.

This “disclosing” of positive feelings has a chemically positive effect. “Most of the time we gripe, we express our anxieties. It depresses our mood and we get into a cycle of complaining. It’s more effective to say what you really value about someone – then you can gripe all you want as you’ve this baseline of positive emotion that will sustain you through those other feelings and make them more positive. A lot of literature is modelling for that.”

So much of the world is about controlling and limiting us – jobs, money, political structures, family. It all gets a bit like Kafka’s novels, says Fletcher. Poets like Sappho – with the courage to reveal their innermost soul – help free us from these manmade cages.

Christie your IQ

MANY critics sneer at the Queen of whodunnits but yarns like Agatha Christie’s detective stories genuinely make you clever. That set-up in most crime fiction where you make an assumption about who is guilty, then have your expectations overturned, only to make another guess at the baddie, helps build intelligence. Neuroscience, says Fletcher, shows this technique is “designed to guide our brain into thinking more scientifically”.

He adds: “Our brain learns by making predictions that fail. The fail jolts our brains with unexpected negative feedback, prompting our neurons to hastily gather more intel and make another prediction … that’s when the brain learns like a scientist.”

Who dares leads

THERE’S been lots of talk about AI computers soon writing stories. Fletcher scoffs: “It’s complete bullshit.” He’s worked with “a very big entertainment company” – he can’t say which – on “a programme to invent stories. It didn’t go anywhere”. That’s because computers can never be truly creative, he says.

“Computers cannot do anything unless we tell them what to do,” Fletcher adds. “If I programme a computer to run an assembly line, it can do that. But if I tell a computer to watch an assembly line and run it better, it’ll never do that in a million years.”

There’s also been talk about AI being used on the battlefield. Ironically, one of the places where Fletcher is working on the application of the “science of stories” is in the military. He’s collaborating with the American army, using literature to make Special Forces soldiers – similar to Britain’s SAS – more effective.

Armies have put “so much money into data and it’s not working”, he says. “What we’re doing is training special operations soldiers how to function in low data environments by boosting their narrative abilities.” In other words, computers cannot examine highly complex, fluid environments – like war – and determine what to do.

However, because the human mind runs primarily on story not logic – more like a book than a computer, as Fletcher discovered – soldiers become better on the battlefield if they think creatively, and they learn how to think creatively through literature. Fletcher – who makes clear he’s a pacifist – has written “the creative-thinking field guide for the US military”.

“Creativity comes from saying what’s unique about this? What’s special about this person? What does she have about her that nobody else has? What are the unique opportunities?” Computers, however, work in the opposite way, studying masses of data. “They look at 1,000 things and say what do they all have in common”.

So, if you read Austen’s Emma, you ask yourself “what’s unique about Emma? Why is she different to any other character in history? We’re training soldiers to use literature to ask what’s unique to activate their creativity – so when they get into life-and-death situations they don’t need lots of data.” What they need is just a few bits of “exceptional information”. “It sounds paradoxical that you’d read Emma as a special operations soldier but actually it works,” says Fletcher.