- Entranced by Story: Brain, Tale, and Teller from Infancy to Old Age by Hugh Crago
Entranced by Story is a fascinating account of the evolution of the storytelling brain in its seven developmental stages: early childhood, preschool childhood, middle childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, maturity, and old age. Because most chapters concern stories we tell or read between childhood and young adolescence, it would seem that Hugh Crago’s argument is of particular relevance to students of children’s literature. The overall focus, however, makes this book eye-opening to anyone interested in how stories engage real readers.
Crago’s premise is that the structure of the human brain explains surprisingly many aspects of the literary experience. The key lies in grasping the interaction of the two hemispheres and the relationship among the three layers of the brain, which perceive and represent the world in fundamentally different ways. Crago coins the term Old Brain to describe the archaic functions of our prehuman brains mediated mostly by the right hemisphere as they operate as and in stories. New Brain, in turn, is his term for the more detached and self-conscious experience of the world—and narrative—offered by the cortex and mediated predominantly by the left hemisphere. This framework of Old and New Brains in extremely complex interaction is the lens that Crago applies to examine the stories we are attracted to at different stages of our lives. [End Page 124]
Chapter 1 looks at songstries and narratives composed by 2- to 4- year-olds, presenting them as quintessential Old Brain creations: concerned with the here and now, external actions, repetition, and formulas. Chapter 2 moves to stories that attract preschoolers, in which 4- to 5-year-olds begin to grapple with existential threats but remain dominated by Old Brain patterns. By middle childhood, the focus of Chapter 3, 7- to 9-year-olds have already made the Piagetan shift to the standards of realism, but the most appealing stories for this age group either describe “places of greater safety” (88) or offer what Crago calls “‘outlift’—the experience of being ‘taken out of oneself’ . . . into something strange, intense, and gratifying” (86). In Chapter 4 Crago deals with the special affinity between adolescence and romance—both as a search for love but also as a quest for the meaning of one’s life. The stories of young adulthood, examined in Chapter 5, reflect “the ebullience, the optimism, and the self confidence of young adulthood” (121). It is during this period that the New Brain finally comes into its own, so paradoxically young adults are also drawn to stories where wrongs are not righted and dreams do not come true. Chapter 6 deals with stories we create in midlife, as we are pulled back into our own pasts to recreate our own, “wish-we-had” childhoods. Chapter 7, finally, deals with storytelling in old age, when even mentally healthy people are drawn toward stories “like the Old-Brain-dominated narratives of early childhood” (192). This trajectory of the rise and fall of our storytelling capacities implies that we start with Old Brain narratives, develop the ability to enjoy New Brain narratives in young adulthood—when our cognitive and physical powers are at their peak—and then regress into Old Brain patterns again.
Why is the Old Brain so dominant in the field of stories? Crago’s answer is that entranced reading—like its flip side, inspired writing—is essentially an Old Brain phenomenon that sweeps us into something bigger than we are. Our brains are hardwired for story-generated experiences of “immersion in a dramatic, significant present-ness” (222), and this immersion, according to Crago, can best be experienced through traditional tales. In his 2003 “What Is a Fairy Tale?” Crago asserted that the genre works through its effect and posited a close match between the fairy-tale consciousness and the level of consciousness displayed by children in Piaget’s pre-operational stage. In Entranced by Story, especially Chapters 1 to 3, he expands this claim, suggesting...