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Elizabeth Svoboda. She is the author of What Makes a Hero? Brought to you by Curio , an Aeon partner.
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Edited by Pam Weintraub. Back in the fall of , Norman Conard, a history teacher at the Uniontown High School in Kansas, asked his students to come up with a project for National History Day.
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Elizabeth asked her fellow ninth-grader Megan Stewart to help her with her project, and during her free time, Megan pored over the story of Irena Sendler. She learned about how this unassuming young Polish nurse had created thousands of false identity papers to smuggle Jewish children out of the ghetto.
To sneak the children past Nazi guards, Sendler hid them under piles of potatoes and loaded them into gunny sacks. They called it Life in a Jar and performed it at schools and theatres. Today, Megan Stewart — now Megan Felt — is programme director for the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes, a non-profit organisation that teaches students about the lives of past luminaries such as Sendler.
The careers of many great novelists and filmmakers are built on the assumption, conscious or not, that stories can motivate us to re-evaluate the world and our place in it. New research is lending texture and credence to what generations of storytellers have known in their bones — that books, poems, movies, and real-life stories can affect the way we think and even, by extension, the way we act.
Whether it evolved for a particular purpose or was simply an outgrowth of our explosion in cognitive development, story is an inextricable part of our DNA. Across time and across cultures, stories have proved their worth not just as works of art or entertaining asides, but as agents of personal transformation. O ne of the earliest narratives to wield such influence was the Old Testament, written down starting in the seventh century BCE and then revised over the course of hundreds of years. While the Old Testament certainly reflected the values and priorities of the culture from which it emerged, those values came embedded in powerful tales that invited readers and listeners to draw their own conclusions.
It was no coincidence that, steeped in stories like these, the ancient Hebrews emerged as a unified society of people devoted to God and his commands. The Homeric emphasis on conquering cities by trickery is mirrored in later Greek battle strategy. Though the characters in these epics were larger-than-life figures, often possessed of superhuman abilities, it was still natural for people to identify with them. Epic heroes rarely conquered their foes with ease.
One reason the epics had such staying power was that they instilled values like grit, sacrifice, and selflessness, especially when young people were exposed to them as a matter of course. In their quest to lead a good life, generations of Greeks looked to the epics for inspiration, giving rise to ancient hero cults that worshipped the exploits of characters like Achilles and Odysseus.
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But only recently has research begun to shed light on how this transformation takes place from inside. Using modern technology like functional MRI fMRI scanning, scientists are tackling age-old questions: What kind of effect do powerful narratives really have on our brains? And how might a story-inspired perspective translate into behavioural change? Our mental response to story begins, as many learning processes do, with mimicry.
In a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study, the psychologist Uri Hasson and his Princeton University colleagues had a graduate student tell an unrehearsed story while her brain was being scanned in an fMRI machine. Then they scanned the brains of 11 volunteers listening to a recording of the story.
As the researchers analysed the data, they found some striking similarities.
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In certain essential ways, then, stories help our brains map that of the storyteller. When the University of Southern California neuroscientist Mary Immordino-Yang told subjects a series of moving true stories, their brains revealed that they identified with the stories and characters on a visceral level. People reported strong waves of emotion as they listened — one story, for instance, was about a woman who invented a system of Tibetan Braille and taught it to blind children in Tibet.
The fMRI data showed that emotion-driven responses to stories like these started in the brain stem, which governs basic physical functions, such as digestion and heartbeat.
The Amazon: How do we heal a burning heart?
Which is my sign of something really touching. We argue with stories, internally or out loud. We talk back. We praise. We denounce. The heart is controller of the happiness which one has for their lives. If one commits to a plan of action which so betrays the will of the heart that person will find themselves in a state of immenent despair.
Yet one cannot hand their lives over wholly to the whims of the soul, for practicality must be noticed. In order to succeed in life people must embark on paths which lead to success, not to failure. They must be sure that their goals are realistic, or, if nothing else, that they do not exist purely in the land of dreams.
For that reason they must use also their minds when seeking a direction in life and purpose for their existence. In light of this existence every decision considered should begin first with the will of the person whom it concerns. That person should decide what it is they would like to do--no matter how impractical it may be.
They must do this part using only their heart and should not let their mind affect their decision. After they have decided their wants the person must then apply a practical method of obtaining said wants. It will often be neccessary that they sacrifice certain parts of their dream so that they may be able to obtain any of it.
The goal, overall, is to get as close as possible, even if it is not exactly what was originally thought of. Of course, not everything can be planned, and one must prepare for both good and bad coincidences.
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They must prepare for both tragedies and miracles, and always be sure to be flexible. Yet I beleive that one thing must not be let go of--and that is that original will, the base of the heart, the greatest dream of the soul. One should never lose sight of that which will cause them happiness, and one should not let any tragedies or coincidences allow them to stray from the path they decided. Though that plan may change one must remember that they can never give up the heeart for the mind, or the mind for the heart.