June 18, 2024

Story world absorption is just what the doctor ordered


Narrative engagement is immersive experience of being drawn into a story, leading to a temporary loss of awareness of oneself and the real world surroundings.

It’s a form of transportation.

Story world absorption shares similarities with flow state. If you’ve ever been watching a movie, reading a book, or listening to an audio program, and felt that your body was inside the world created by the story, that’s narrative engagement.

If it’s easy to tune out all the other activities around you, to the extent that you no longer notice your surroundings, the story did its job.

Psychologists have studied this phenomenon extensively. According to a popular study in a cognitive journal, the degree to which a story narrative engages the audience depends on its propensity for presence and emotional impact, the story’s level of suspense and curiosity, and most importantly, the ease of accepting unrealism.

That last trait is key. Because the beauty of a great story is, you find yourself accepting ideas and events that you might have otherwise considered to be unrealistic. Your mind and body is inside the world created by the narrative, and the story world might even be closer to you than the real world.

What’s fascinating to me is when we step away from pure entertainment value and start using stories as therapeutic tools.

Cognitive behavioralists often run this exercise with their clients. They use narrative techniques to engage them in exploring overwhelming thoughts and emotions. Doing so activates the client’s sense of openness and helps them heal faster, or at the very least, feel more.

As an example, imagine a person made a mistake at work that cost their company thousands of dollars. She’s racked with guilt all weekend. Wondering whether she is going to be reprimanded or possibly fired.

The therapist might tell the client, okay, let’s use your difficult, distracting and disturbing thoughts to create a movie scene together. Close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths.

Now, this fictional scenario will serve as a metaphor for your experience. It’s a safe space to explore, and you have total creative freedom to shape the narrative. Remember, there are no right or wrong answers in this movie.

So take your time and feel free to express yourself openly.

And, scene.

I have personally done this exercise many times, both with my therapist, and by myself. And it’s powerful. Narrative engagement, when framed through a therapeutic lens, allows you to externalize your thoughts and put them on screen, to so to speak.

Now it’s easier for you to see your feelings objectively, rather than letting the guilt swirl around in your mind unchecked. By creating a fictional scenario, you project your own experiences onto the story. And it’s a more personalized exploration of the movie’s themes.

In some instances, physically writing out that story can also elevate the experience. Because now you’re not only imagining the movie scene, but writing it out allows you to create what’s called a thought record. By documenting your experiences, thoughts and emotions in movie form, it’s easier to identify any problems with your thinking. Plus, you always have that artifact to return to.

What if the story world could get closer to you than the real world?