- Lecture: "Wonderworks: How Narratives and Narrative Theory Can Solve Our Greatest Problems—and Unlock Our Greater Possibilities."
- Lecturer: Angus Fletcher, Professor at The Ohio State University and Core Faculty member of Project Narrative
- Project Narrative is committed to hosting inclusive, accessible events that enable all individuals, including individuals with disabilities, to engage fully, even in virtual formats. To request an accommodation or for inquiries about accessibility, please contact Joey Ferraro at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In our STEM-mad age, we’ve become intimately familiar with the wondrous powers of cell phones, social media and other gadgetries. Yet what if we humans possessed an even more potent technology, one better than any steel-or-silicon apparatus at giving us the things we most deeply want and need? What if that technology was contained in the dusty old libraries of the humanities? And what if the way to access its empowering blueprints had been discovered by an underfunded gang of renegade scholars who called themselves the ‘Narrative Theorists’?
In this short talk and (hopefully) long discussion, I’ll lay out some evidence in favor of the farfetched hypotheticals above. The evidence will be taken from my book Wonderworks (Simon & Schuster, 2021), which draws on neuroscience, experimental psychology and narrative theory to identify 25 global literary inventions (spanning from Bronze Age Mesopotamia to Iron Age India, Zhou Dynasty China, Aztec Mesoamerica, Classical Athens, Medieval Ghana, Renaissance England, Antebellum America and your favorite guilty-watch on Hulu) that can plug into our brain to alleviate trauma (both acute and chronic), increase problem-solving prowess, enhance creativity, mimic the anti-depressant effects of LSD, boost mental energy, spark love, encourage empathy and nurture mental health and wellbeing in dozens more ways.
We’ll see how reading Jane Austen can make us better friends. How watching Tina Fey’s 30 Rock can increase our odds (impossible as it sounds) that our dreams will come true. How reading Homer can boost our courage. How watching Hamlet can facilitate grieving. How reading Maya Angelou can foster personal growth. How reading The Epic of Sundiata can turn us into more active learners. How watching Disney Plus can…well, not damage us exactly, but, like corn syrup, be unhealthy in more than modest quantities.
And finally, we’ll explore why this life-changing know-how is just the beginning. Because narrative theory can also help connect the world at large to the untapped potential of philosophy, history and the rest of the humanities, imbuing our techno-modernity with a little more of the neural stuff—kindness, joy, imagination, purpose—that sustains the miracle machine of our biology.
About Angus Fletcher
Angus Fletcher is a professor at Ohio State University and a core faculty member of Project Narrative. He holds dual degrees in neuroscience (BS, University of Michigan) and literature (PhD, Yale). His research employs a mix of laboratory experiment, literary history and rhetorical theory to explore the psychological effects—cognitive, behavioral, therapeutic—of different narrative technologies.
His most recent book, Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature (Simon & Schuster, 2021) details the mental health and wellbeing benefits of over two dozen literary breakthroughs from ancient Sumer to the present day. It has been formally endorsed by medical and humanities faculty at Yale, Stanford, Oxford and Cambridge, and has been described by Dr. Martin Seligman, Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, as the work of a “polymath” who combines “a profound knowledge of world literature” with “a deep knowledge of modern psychology and of neuroscience.”
His previous scholarly book, Comic Democracies: From Ancient Athens to the American Republic (Johns Hopkins, 2016) traces a half-dozen comic innovations—found in works ranging from Greek comedy, to Shakespeare’s history plays, to the Declaration of Independence, to Frederick Douglass’ abolitionist speeches—that nurture pluralism, the pursuit of happiness, eccentric governance and other physical behaviors that have been empirically shown to promote democratic practice.
Angus has published articles in Critical Inquiry, Poetics Today, New Literary History and dozens of other academic journals. His most recent work anatomizes the fundamental difference between computer AI and human narrative intelligence; a sample can be found in his 2021 proof in Narrative of why computers will never be able to read (or write) novels.
He is currently at work on two book projects. The first offers a tour of narrative intelligence, including 10 of its neural powers; the second explores how humanities teaching and research can be innovated to support the needs of the twenty-first century by exchanging critical thinking, textual interpretation and other tools of symbolic logic for narrative modes of thinking more intuitive to human brains.
Because of his interest in narrative innovation, Angus has worked for over a decade as a consultant for film and television producers at Disney, Sony, the BBC, Amazon and PBS, and is the author-presenter of the Audible/Great Courses guide The Art of Story. He is currently developing television series for David Stern and Scott of Playground and Nne Ebong of WIIP.
His research has been supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Mellon Foundation, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the New York Academy of Medicine and others.