- Entranced by Story: Brain, Tale and Teller, from Infancy to Old Age by Hugh Crago
This is a book of extraordinary scope and ambition. Hugh Crago aims for nothing less than a “unified theory of Story” (230) integrating left and right hemisphere, author and reader, genre and aging. He is intrigued with something that seems beyond the purview of modern literary criticism: shared entrancement, the sensation experienced both by the inspired and compelled author and by the identifying reader who merges Story to life/ childhood experience. Crago is brilliant, erudite, knowledgeable about authors and readers, a commanding storyteller himself, and a meticulous editor.
The book’s premise is that a bicameral mind still operates in humans: an Old Brain (roughly equivalent to the right hemisphere) and a New Brain (associated with the left). The Old Brain is analog, essentialist, and holistic; thinks in patterns and sounds, visions and feelings; and pays attention to threats and desires. Its cognition is older than language; indeed, language may well have its origin in the right hemisphere’s musical, rhythmical repetitions and incantations (223). The Old Brain shows rather than tells, represents rather than analyzes, knows no time and draws no boundaries and is thus embedded “in a dramatic, significant present-ness” (222). Stories well up compulsively (200), often driven by childhood experiences (225). The New Brain experiences the lucid compulsions of the Old Brain as originating from outside. Unlike the Old Brain, the New Brain thinks digitally, pays attention to discrete details—it inventories and analyzes to understand, to abstract (77), to make sense (11).
Crago’s exploration of the author’s experience profits from his professional expertise in literature, children’s literature, human development, and counseling. The inspired author, he shows, experiences an “onrush,” a compulsion to write—and it feels like taking dictation (199), as if the characters were coercing the author. The writer’s left hemisphere arranges the words to narrate what the right hemisphere felt, saw, and patterned (223). There is something therapeutic that authors seek in that process, the left hemisphere achieving a temporary sense of “secure closure” (175) to the unbounded rehearsal of emotional drama. Aging authors especially feel the need to respond to old pain, “in the same way that an oyster coats an irritating grain of sand with smoothing pearl” (225). The successful storyteller manages to convert the left hemisphere’s preferred lineal modus operandi back into the Old Brain’s cyclic patterns (158) and is able to suspend the boundaries between real and pretend (183). Crago discloses (at times embarrassingly) intimate details of individual authors’ biographies to show how those same cyclic patterns tend to be repeated in their personal [End Page 85] lives. He will even analyze authors’ families, chronicling how the lives of successive generations can be “patterned, repetitive and endless—like Old Brain stories” (171). It appears that the “romantic egotists” among those authors actually “try their best to make life conform to story” (219). “My life,” he quotes children’s books author Katherine Paterson, “is based on a true story” (171).
Enthralled reading, for Crago, is a right hemisphere–dominated experience that induces trance (151). The reader merges with the character (53), mirror neurons firing “in sympathy” (44). That mental merging feels like an “outlift” as the reader intuits the author and becomes the protagonist. Young readers/listeners in particular have no defense mechanism against being commandeered so completely, though as their frontal lobes mature, they can inhibit automatic responses (45). Rather than becoming one with the characters (as “performers”), left-hemisphere readers can choose to enter a story as “interrogators”—as themselves, interacting with its characters (55). With age, readers increasingly demand a closer fit between the story protagonist and their own persona (151). As adults, we most fully experience enthrallment when we read about ourselves (in disguise).
Aging profoundly influences our story experience, both as creators and as co-creators. Crago begins by asserting that the right hemisphere is dominant in the infant’s brain. Stories created by very young children are blow-by...