Story science scholar Fletcher shares how literature heightens human emotions


Angus Fletcher, author of Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature, delivers his lecture “A Key to Futures Vast: Using Literature to Unlock the Secrets of Your Brain” on Monday in the Amphitheater, opening Week Eight’s Chautauqua Lecture Series theme of “The Human Brain: Our Greatest Mystery.” DAVE MUNCH / PHOTO EDITOR

When Angus Fletcher was in his 20s, studying and working in theater, he was called in to solve a dispute between an actor and a director. The actor was playing Hamlet and did not think it was authentic for any person to say their private thoughts aloud, so he wanted to come on stage, say nothing, and do a thinking pose for each soliloquy. The director was not pleased by this, to say the least. 

So Fletcher helped them settle on a compromise: The actor could do his thinking pose, while the words of the soliloquy were projected on the wall behind him. 

“The audience sees the silent Hamlet, and they see the words, and they think, ‘We’re supposed to be reading these words. Aloud,’ ” said Fletcher, a professor of story science at Ohio State University. “What was so amazing about it was to me, this was a moment of human creativity. It was a moment where we had all come together — the director, the actor, the audience — to do something unplanned.”

Fletcher wanted to recreate this scene in Chautauqua’s Amphitheater, so Hamlet’s famous “To be, or not to be” speech appeared on the hanging projector screens. The audience laughed, and then read it as one.

The Amp’s atmosphere seemed a little lighter after this, and Fletcher said experiencing stories, especially tragedies, and trying new activities can spur on creativity. 

As well as being a professor, Fletcher is the author of Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature. At 10:30 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 16 in the Amp, Fletcher presented his lecture, titled “A Key to Futures Vast: Using Literature to Unlock the Secrets of Your Brain,” as the first presentation of Week Eight’s theme of “The Human Brain: Our Greatest Mystery.” Fletcher explored the duality of the human brain, the power of emotions in making decisions, and how people can utilize literature to heighten the mind’s best qualities. 

What’s the secret to the human brain, and how do people capitalize the good, while minimizing the bad? This is the question that carried Fletcher to his neurophysiology studies at the University of Michigan Medical School. There, he and other scholars looked at the individual neurons of the brain, cutting the organ open to discover how it worked. 

“I had insight into cracking the secret of our brain’s power,” Fletcher said, “and that insight started with the realization that we were thinking about the brain wrong.”

Scientists used to believe the mind was a computer: the eyes took in data; memory stored it; and the mind used logic to act on it. Emotions, many believed, were misfires of the brain — simply errors. 

This is not the case, as Fletcher said. For starters, the human brain can only take in a few data points at a time, while computers can take in “zillions.” This limitation of the brain is why three ideas usually feel like a perfect amount put forth in a presentation or a book. 

While humans cannot compute thousands of points of data in a second, mankind does have positive emotions that can fuel some of humanity’s best actions.

“Where would we be in this world without love and generosity and hope?” Fletcher said. 

What makes the brain special is creativity, and this is why Fletcher studied the arts and got his doctorate studying Shakespeare at Yale University.

“There’s so much emotion and creativity in paint, in literature, in music, in dance,” Fletcher said.

Then Fletcher posed another question: When are you more likely to do something — when you think something is good or when you feel something is good? He said for most people in most instances, it is the latter. 

“Feeling is such a crucial driver of passion that we almost never do something when we just think it is important,” Fletcher said. “We have to convince our emotions by tapping into our brain’s desire to do the right thing.”

Negative emotions, like traumatic fear and grief, tell people to stop, and positive emotions, like love and happiness, tell people to go. He described this as a “go and no-go switch.” This switch, he said, is “the most important thing in our head.”

“So if you want to understand human behavior, and if you aspire, as I do, to change your own behavior, it all starts with understanding our emotions,” Fletcher said.

Artists, Fletcher said, have fine-tuned these remarkably complex emotions, all the way back to Greek tragedies. He said some people have asked why tragedies and sad stories are popular, and why people do not watch happy stories to feel better.

One possible reason, he said, is that tragedies purge the feeling of trauma, or are cathartic. In his research with veterans, he has seen the utility of tragedy at work. 

“I was a skeptic because I have seen firsthand the depths of trauma, and how tractable it is, and how deeply it cuts through the human brain, and I have met and worked with many veterans, and the idea of going to see a play can somehow have a profound effect on the human brain seemed unlikely,” Fletcher said. “As I saw myself firsthand, the effects of tragedy can be emotionally cathartic.” 

The original audience and writers of Greek tragedies were veterans, Fletcher said, and dealt with the same subjects that present-day veterans have to process. Watching these plays often helped start to alleviate the worst symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as flashbacks. 

These stories helped people process trauma where scientists couldn’t, he said. The plays worked because they approached tough subjects differently. 

“In real life, trauma hits us without warning — we have no time to brace or protect ourselves or shield our minds,” Fletcher said. “On stage, however, we can see trauma coming before it arrives.”

In Greek tragedies, such as Oedipus, the tragic ending is told at the beginning of the play through oracles or prophecy. So when the tragedy happens to the character, Fletcher said, the brain thinks “I have seen this before. I’ve gone through this already.” This gives the brain the cognitive feeling of being a survivor. 

As survivors, the audience can figuratively reach out to the character with empathy.

“One of the most effective ways for us to heal from trauma is to assist someone else through their trauma. This feeling of helping someone else builds what is called self-efficacy in the brain,” Fletcher said. “It is the reason that Greek tragedy is so effective at helping military veterans — because it gives them the experience of reaching out and saying, ‘I have been there before’ in a safe space, and starting to unlock their own mental feelings of self-efficacy.”

Fletcher ended with two thoughts. The first was that society is spending too much money and energy on computers.

“Computers and artificial intelligence are often portrayed today as these mighty, invincible machines, poised to take over the globe,” Fletcher said. “But as anyone who has worked up close with AI will tell you, it is extremely fragile.”

Artificial intelligence depends entirely on large amounts of transparent data and stable environments, he said, “and guess what environment isn’t transparent and stable: Life.”

“The human brain has evolved emotion and creativity,” Fletcher said. “Emotion and creativity can work with low, and even no, data.”

The second was that education needs to focus on art. Fletcher said even in arts and literature classes, schools emphasize critical thinking over creativity and exploration. 

“School is neglecting the major psychological needs and major psychological strengths of students’ human brains,” Fletcher said.

So how can people attend to these needs and strengths?

“Well,” Fletcher said, “it’s gonna be a challenge. But lucky for us, we have just the tool to get the job done. That marvelous, go-go-go, creative force we call our brain.”

As part of the Q-and-A session, Geof Follansbee, senior vice president and chief advancement officer, asked Fletcher how people can proactively use the arts to help heal trauma from the pandemic. 

Fletcher said human connections are frayed, to say the least, by the pandemic, and connections are created through empathy. He said empathy must be practiced, and one way to do this is by reading books written by authors with a variety of perspectives.

People often say Fletcher’s craziest idea is that he never assigns books for his literature classes. Instead, he asks his students what books they enjoy or what authors they respect, and he gives them the “scientific tools” to explore them in a therapeutic way. This practice has made the books they read very diverse and shifts the balance of power away from him and toward the students. 

“The point here is that literature did not function as something to be imposed, and literature does not generate empathy by being imposed,” Fletcher said. “The best thing about going to the library is the feeling of opportunity, of choice, of thinking, ‘I could take any book off the shelf here I want,’ and see all those human minds on their shelves, and think that I can have a conversation and a friendship with any of them.”

And he said adults have to be models for students and younger people.

“What you are doing now as an adult in the world is modeling courage,” Fletcher said, “modeling curiosity, modeling empathy, modeling behaviors — not modeling knowledge.”

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The author Nick Danlag

This is Nick Danlag’s second season at the Daily reporting the morning lecture recap. He worked remotely last year but loved waking up each day in Las Vegas to learn more about Chautauqua through his reporting. From Mount Laurel, New Jersey, Nick earned a creative writing degree from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. As editor-in-chief of his student newspaper, The Current, he loved helping the staff develop their voices.