WHEN KEEPIN’ IT REAL GOES WRONG: Is Fiction More Powerful than Nonfiction?
What is that, you ask?
“A Conscious Brother” is a Black man who possesses a knowledge of – and love for – his history, culture and people. He knows that, because of the color of his skin, he is – by law, or tradition – politically, economically and socially discriminated against and he works – in a myriad of ways – to fight against said discrimination. Of course, there are also “Conscious Sisters”.
I hang out with Brothers and Sisters who are both “conscious” and not-so-“conscious”.
Now, talk to most “conscious” people and they are intelligent and very well read. Most of us can quote Chancellor Williams’ Destruction of Black Civilization from cover-to-cover. I have read everything from Soledad Brother to Flash of the Spirit. Our shelves are filled with great works of nonfiction.
I love to read nonfiction. Hell, I even wrote a nonfiction book – Afrikan Martial Arts: Discovering the Warrior Within.
I also love to read – and write – fiction.
After forty years of voracious reading and after nearly three decades of studying the workings of the brain and the mind, I have come to the realization that fiction is a more powerful tool – for learning and delivering truth; for shaping opinions and for affecting change – than nonfiction.
Recently, I asked one of my “conscious” friends why – out of over a thousand books – not one is a work of fiction and why he doesn’t allow his children to read fiction.
“All that Star Wars, Dungeons & Dragons, Steampunk shit ain’t real, bruh. I keeps it real, son…for myself and definitely for my seeds (“children”). I got no interest in those ‘escapist’ hobbies, yo.”
Sadly, many Black people – particularly those who consider themselves to be “conscious” – feel that Science Fiction, Fantasy and role-playing games are pointless; useless; a waste of time; and maybe even harmful.
But they’re wrong.
My time spent playing role-playing games, reading comic books and storytelling during my childhood and teen years were crucial, formative experiences that were as real and memorable as my time spent running track, competing in the Academic Olympics or grappling on the sparring mat.
Once an event has passed into memory, it is the feeling of accomplishment, reward, mutual achievement and victory that is important. How I feel these feelings is irrelevant. The triggering event does not matter.
To fully understand this, let’s examine what the brain is – and how it functions – a bit deeper.
The Human Brain is the Most Complex Entity in the Known Universe
Our brains are organs of staggering complexity, having approximately 100,000 miles of capillaries…and it can grow more. Your brain has 100,000,000,000 cells. It also has 100,000,000,000,000 to 500,000,000,000,000 connections between those cells and no matter where you are at in your own brain development, you do not even use a fraction of 1% of your brain’s capacity.
Your Non-Conscious Thinking is 5 Times Stronger Than Your Conscious Thinking
Your brain thinks in six different areas at the same time. You have six parallel processes going on at once. Only one of these is your conscious process. The other areas of your brain are not accessible by your conscious brain. You have a different set of neurons that comprise your conscious thinking and you cannot directly access your non-conscious thoughts.
You have a powerful friend or foe in your non-conscious brain. It is 5/6 of your thinking power. Because you cannot directly control or access your non-conscious brain, you have to work at some techniques that will help you control it.
Your Non-Conscious Brain Sees, Hears, Smells, and Touches.
I am sure you have all heard of subliminal pictures. Your conscious mind cannot perceive a picture that lasts for less than about 1/50,000 of a second. However it is proven that your non-conscious brain does see and remember it. Scientists monitoring your brain activity can tell what picture your non-conscious brain saw by observing the firing patterns in your brain when one of these pictures is flashed in front of you. Your non-conscious brain is aware of everything that is going on around you. It is drinking in the world to a much higher degree than your conscious mind. Just because you are not aware of it at the conscious level, does not mean that you are not thinking about – and reacting to – it.
Your Non-Conscious Brain Treats Everything as Real
Notice how when you are watching a scary movie, you actually get scared? You react emotionally even though your conscious brain knows it is not real. The same thing is true for fiction.
You experience fear, happiness, sadness and other emotions when you watch a movie or read a book because your non-conscious brain is watching the movie too and it does not know the difference between fantasy and reality.
Your non-conscious brain believes that everything it thinks, sees, hears and feels is real. It cannot tell the difference between reality and fantasy or between the truth and a lie.
The Power of Fiction
Is fiction good for us? We spend huge chunks of our lives immersed in novels, films, TV shows, comic books and other forms of fiction. Some see this as a positive thing, arguing that imaginative stories cultivate our mental and moral development. However, others argue that fiction is mentally and ethically corrosive. That it is a bundle of lies, while nonfiction is the truth.
This controversy has been flaring up ever since Plato tried to ban fiction from his ideal republic.
In 1961, FCC chairman Newton Minow said that television was not working in “the public interest” because its “formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons” amounted to a “vast wasteland.”
What Minow said of television has also been said – over the centuries – of novels, theater, comic books, and films: They are not in the public interest.
Fiction does, indeed, mold us. The more deeply we get into a story, the more potent its influence.
In fact, fiction is more effective at changing beliefs than nonfiction, which is designed to persuade through argument and evidence. Studies show that when we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally and this makes us malleable – easy to shape.
Fiction enhances our ability to understand other people; it promotes a deep morality that cuts across religious and political creeds. More peculiarly, fiction’s happy endings make us believe that the world can be more just than it is right now.
Fiction giving birth to the belief that a better world is attainable may even help explain why humans tell stories in the first place.
As the psychologist Raymond Mar writes, “Researchers have repeatedly found that reader attitudes shift to become more congruent with the ideas expressed in a [fictional] narrative.” For example, studies reliably show that when we read a book that treats white men as the default heroes, our own views on white men are likely to move in the same direction – we view them as heroes. History, too, reveals fiction’s ability to change our values at the societal level, for better and worse. For example, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped bring about the Civil War by convincing huge numbers of Americans that Black people are…people, and that enslaving us is a crime against God and man. On the other hand, the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation inflamed racist sentiments and helped resurrect an all but defunct Ku Klux Klan.
However, virtually all storytelling, regardless of genre, increases society’s empathy and reinforces an ethic of decency that is deeper than politics.
Psychologists have found that heavy fiction readers outperform heavy nonfiction readers on tests of empathy, even after the psychologists controlled for the possibility that people who already had high empathy might naturally gravitate to fiction.
One study showed that children ages 4-6, who were exposed to a large number of children’s books and films, had a significantly stronger ability to read the mental and emotional states of other people. Similarly, psychologists recently had people read a short story that was specifically written to induce compassion in the reader. They wanted to see not only if fiction increased empathy, but whether it would lead to actual helping behavior. They found that the more absorbed subjects were in the story, the more empathy they felt, and the more empathy they felt, the more likely the subjects were to help when the experimenters “accidentally” dropped a handful of pens. Highly absorbed readers were twice as likely to help out.
It appears that ‘curling up with a good book’ may do more than provide relaxation and entertainment. Reading fiction allows us to learn about our social world and as a result fosters empathic growth and appropriate social behavior.
While fiction sometimes dwells on lewdness, depravity, and simple selfishness, storytellers virtually always put us in a position to judge wrongdoing. More often than not, goodness is endorsed and rewarded and badness is condemned and punished. Fiction generally teaches us that it is profitable to be good.
Furthermore, traditional tales – from heroic epics to sacred myths – perform the essential work of defining group identity and reinforcing cultural values, acting as a kind of social glue that binds fractious individuals together around common values.
On the continent of Africa, history, culture, the sciences, social norms and religious practices are imparted through storytelling and the storytellers – Babalawo, Iyanifa, Sanusi, Djeli – are held in the highest regard and are figures of great power, authority and respect.
The traditional African man and woman have long understood the workings of the brain. Indeed, the study, state and function of the three levels of the brain and mind – or “Ori” – are of the utmost importance in traditional Yoruba society. The more stories – called Ese (sounds, ironically, like “essay”) – a Yoruba knows, the more knowledgeable, wise and understanding he or she is considered to be.
The Yoruba “keeps it real, son.”
And so should you.
Read your nonfiction…then get “real” and pick up a novel.
Preferably, one written by me (just keeping it real).