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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 177

Angus Fletcher — 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature

Wonderworks: The 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature (book cover)

A brilliant examination of literary inventions through the ages, from ancient Mesopotamia to Elena Ferrante, that shows how writers have created technical breakthroughs rivaling scientific inventions and engineering enhancements to the human heart and mind. Literature is a technology like any other. And the writers we revere—Homer, Shakespeare, Austen, and others—each made a unique technical breakthrough that can be viewed as both a narrative and neuroscientific advancement. Literature’s great invention was to address problems we could not solve: not how to start a fire or build a boat, but how to live and love; how to maintain courage in the face of death; how to account for the fact that we exist at all. Neuroscientist and literature professor Dr. Angus Fletcher reviews the 25 most powerful developments in the history of literature. These inventions can be scientifically shown to alleviate grief, trauma, loneliness, anxiety, numbness, depression, pessimism, and ennui—all while sparking creativity, courage, love, empathy, hope, joy, and positive change. They can be found all throughout literature—from ancient Chinese lyrics to Shakespeare’s plays, poetry to nursery rhymes and fairy tales, and crime novels to slave narratives.

Dr. Angus Fletcher is a professor of story science at Ohio State’s Project Narrative, the world’s leading academic think-tank for the study of stories. He has dual degrees in neuroscience and literature, received his Ph.D. from Yale, taught Shakespeare at Stanford, and has published two books and dozens of peer-reviewed academic articles on the scientific workings of novels, poetry, film, and theater. His research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He has done story-consulting for projects for Sony, Disney, the BBC, Amazon, PBS, and Universal, and is the author/presenter of the Audible/Great Courses Guide to Screenwriting.

Shermer and Fletcher discuss:

  • How does one become a literary neuroscientist
  • Scientific truths and literary truths
  • Truthiness in literature: lived experiences? A Million Little Pieces by James Frey
  • What is a memoir but a lived experience? Is factual accuracy required?
  • Humans as storytelling animals
  • What are myths and stories, and what role do they play in human life and culture?
  • Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Star Wars?)
  • Epic of Gilgamesh, Noah’s Flood Story, Virgin Birth myths, Resurrection myths
  • The Day the Earth Stood Still: a Christ allegory?
  • How literature can increase creativity, alleviate trauma, boost intelligence, and elevate happiness
  • Literature and meaningfulness and purposefulness
  • Reading and Theory of Mind: how literature makes us more empathetic, or at least better able to interchange perspectives with others
  • Enheduanna: the world’s first recorded literary inventor, a poet-priestess who lived 5000 years ago in what is now Southern Iraq: her innovation stimulates a self-transcendent experience in our brain’s parietal lobe, measurably increasing our life-purpose and generosity.
  • Sappho: literary invention for increasing love by stimulating our brain’s nucleus accumbens
  • Literary inventions that deal with PTSD: veterans to heal from the psychological damage of battle, and survivors of chronic domestic abuse
  • After Shakespeare lost his son Hamnet he forged a literary breakthrough that has been clinically proven to alleviate grief by acting on the emotional circuitry of our brain’s amygdala, which he presented in Hamlet and revised in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking
  • Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus, in which the monster cries out, “Remember, I have power…. I can make you so wretched that the light of day will be hateful to you. You are my creator, but I am your master…obey!”
  • Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz
  • Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon.
From Dr. Shermer’s book How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science

Miraculous flood myths were also not uncommon in the ancient world. Predating the biblical Noachian flood story by centuries, the Epic of Gilgamesh was written around 1800 B.C. Warned by the Babylonian Earth-god Ea that other gods were about to destroy all life with a flood, Utnapishtim was instructed to build an ark in the form of a cube 120 cubits (180 feet) in length, breadth, and depth, with seven floors, each divided into nine compartments, and to take aboard one pair of each living creature. In point of fact, most cultures located on large bodies of water that flood have similar flood myths.

Virgin birth myths are not unique either. Among those who were allegedly conceived without the usual assistance from the male lineage are Dionysus, Perseus, Buddha, Attis, Krishna, Horus, Mercury, Romulus and, of course, Jesus. Consider the parallels between Dionysus, the ancient Greek God of wine, and Jesus of Nazareth. Both were said to have been born from a virgin mother, who was a mortal woman, but were fathered by the king of heaven; both allegedly returned from the dead, transformed water into wine, introduced the idea of eating and drinking the flesh and blood of the creator, and were liberators of humanity.

Even the miracle of the resurrection is not unique to Christianity. Osiris is the Egyptian god of life, death, and fertility, and is one of the oldest Gods for whom records have survived. Osiris first appears in the pyramid texts of around 2400 B.C., at which time his following was already well established. Widely worshipped until the forced repression of pagan religions in the early Christian era, Osiris was not only the redeemer and merciful judge of the dead in the afterlife, but also linked to fertility, most notably (and appropriate to the geography) the flooding of the Nile, and the growth of crops. The kings of Egypt themselves were inextricably connected with Osiris in death, such that it was believed that when Osiris rose from the dead so would they in union with him. By the time the New Kingdom arose, not only Pharaohs but also mortal men believed that they could be resurrected by and with Osiris at death if, of course, they practiced the correct religious rituals. Sound familiar? This story of Osiris predates the Jesus messiah story by at least two and a half millennia.

—Jesus, Wovoka, the Messiah Myth, and the Oppression-Redemption Myth anthropologist James Mooney in his 1896 book The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890:

And when the race lies crushed and groaning beneath an alien yoke, how natural is the dream of a redeemer, an Arthur, who shall return from exile or awake from some long sleep to drive out the usurper and win back for his people what they have lost. The hope becomes a faith and the faith becomes the creed of priests and prophets, until the hero is a god and the dream a religion, looking to some great miracle of nature for its culmination and accomplishment. The doctrines of the Hindu avatar, the Hebrew Messiah, the Christian millennium, and the Hesunanin of the Indian Ghost dance are essentially the same, and have their origin in a hope and longing common to all humanity.

I call such stories Oppression-Redemption myths, and there are many such examples.

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This episode was released on May 1, 2021.

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