The Neuroscience of story

Your message can have a greater impact through an effectively told story.

They can ignite ideas. They can stir up feelings of awe, wonder, inspiration. They can make us jump out of our seats in surprise or terror. Stories hold powers greater than we may have imagined.

Once upon a relatively recent time, the field of neuroscience took a peek behind the curtain of stories. What they found was that stories affect our physical and mental makeup on many different levels. From connecting both sides of the brain to triggering the release of specific neurotransmitters, stories cause real change — to our thoughts, feelings, and often actions.

Stories go beyond just books, movies, articles, or theatrical performances. They also include the stories that businesses tell through their brands as well as the stories we tell ourselves about who we are — as individuals and as a collective.

“The stories we tell literally make the world. If you want to change the world, you need to change your story.” — Michael Margolis

Before diving into the brain science behind stories, let’s look at the evolutionary reason why they are such an integral part of the human story.

THE IMPORTANCE OF STORIES FOR THE SURVIVAL OF HUMANITY

Stories have been a way for us to pass down wisdom through the millennia. Imagine our ancestors back in the Stone Age sitting around a fire. The group of men that just came back from their daily dinner hunt are excitedly telling a story of how they encountered a hyena. Through their experience, this group of men can use their story to help advise others about how not to get eaten by a hyena.

We are biologically wired to help one another. The survival of our species depends on our ability to cooperate, avoid danger, and take advantage of opportunities. Sharing wisdom through stories is one of the ways we can do all three. The bonds of humanity grow stronger thanks to the empathy that stories create.

“A life becomes meaningful when one sees himself as an actor within the context of story.” — George Howard

Together, we help our species keep evolving as we build upon the knowledge that others before us have left. We grow wiser without having to make the same mistakes that others have made.

From a biological standpoint, stories move us forward in three major ways:

  1. They help us relate to one another
  2. They help us make more connections between the left and right side of the brain
  3. They help us remember and integrate what we learn

HOW STORIES AFFECT THE BRAIN

This is a summary of a few of the major findings about the effect of stories on the makeup and functioning of our brain.

  1. RELATING TO ONE ANOTHER: OXYTOCIN & MIRROR NEURONS

Stories help us feel a greater sense of connection to one another. They can increase our empathy and often help reinforce our highest ideals such as compassion and kindness.

  • Let the oxytocin flow
    As we connect with the characters in a story, our brain releases oxytocin, often known as the “bonding” or “love” hormone. This makes us feel close to the characters even though we may not have any physical or personal contact with them. According to Paul Zak of Claremont Graduate University, the amount of oxytocin released by the brain can even predict whether people will be willing to donate money to a cause associated with a story.
  • The mirror of neurons
    Mirror neurons are activated when we observe another person perform an action or go through an emotion. Often unconsciously, we then mirror these actions or emotions. When we watch our favorite character fighting for his life on the movie screen, we feel the fear and anxiety as if we were the ones being attacked. This is because their feelings are reflected in the mirror of our own neural wiring. The characters’ actions and emotions are quite literally mapped over onto our own brain’s sensory representations.
  • A concept related to mirror neurons is neural coupling. Dr. Uri Hasson’s work has shown that the brain of the person telling a story actually synchs with the listener.

Through building this sense of connection to the characters, we often don’t know where our feelings end and their feelings begin. This can help us feel more connected and less lonely as we realize that we are all human beings who experience a wide range of emotions.

2. INCREASING NEURAL ACTIVITY: CONNECTING THE TWO SIDES

Facts and data activate the left side of our brain. This hemisphere is known as the center of language and analysis. The right side of the brain is often associated with creativity and intuition. It helps us see the big picture whereas the left side only focuses on picking out certain patterns.

Stories are the perfect concoction to please both sides of the brain. The information presented stimulates the left brain. The cohesive structure that holds the story together stimulates the right brain. As a result, more of our brain is at work and the increased neural activity helps us make more connections between the information presented and our existing knowledge. Stories thus make it easier for us to integrate new information into our experience.

3. REMEMBERING WHAT WE LEARN: HELLO EMOTIONS!

Effective stories cause us to feel emotions. Emotions heighten our ability to memorize experiences and thus help improve information processing. Stories make it easier for our brains to store data for later retrieval.

Emotions are a signal to the brain that whatever we are experiencing is important. As a result, the brain pays much more attention and stores the information that is charged with emotion into deeper parts such as the cerebellum. The more we relate to a narrative, the more likely we will be able to recall the information presented in a story. According to Morris et al., the emotional content of stories improves the odds that we will act on the information shared.

“Stories are memory aids, instruction manuals and moral compasses.” — Aleks Krotoski

CRAFTING AN EFFECTIVE STORY

If you want your story — personal or business — to have a greater impact on others, here are some things to keep in mind:

1. CAPTURE ATTENTION THROUGH CONFLICT OR TENSION
Attention is the brain’s most precious resource. In order for the brain to expand its energy on taking in new data, there must be something at stake. A story that creates tension is likely to capture attention as our brains see the possibility of learning something that could help us avoid a threat or take advantage of an opportunity.

In marketing, there is often a fine line between causing unnecessary stress and bringing attention to a problem that a product or service could help resolve. In storytelling, it is the relatability of the character’s problem to our own that makes us perk up and draws us in.

2. PUT YOURSELF IN THEIR SHOES
In order to build empathy and a sense of connection, think about how your readers/listeners/viewers will be able to relate to your story. What are their greatest desires and fears? Cater your story to the people who you want to help or entertain most. Think about the stories or brands you are most drawn to. They are likely ones that you can most see yourself in.

Present your story in such a format where your target audience gets to be the hero — you just happen to be the “guide” who helps them navigate through a problem— sort of like a personal Yoda.

If you are successful with these first two strategies, you will help your audience experience a phenomenon called “transportation.” This is where we enter into the land of the story, thanks to a cocktail of the cortisol from our heightened attention and the oxytocin from our sense of shared connection.

3. PROPOSE A SOLUTION IN A NOVEL WAY
Novelty increases recall of information. Because the brain has to pay more attention to retain new information, it is more likely to remember data presented in a novel manner rather than in clichés.

The underlying elements of all stories are nearly identical. What differentiates a story is the novelty of the content or the way the content is structured. To help your audience remember or act on your message, present it in a new and unique fashion.

BEWARE YOUR INNER STORIES

Great stories often leave us feeling empowered to change our lives for the better. Other stories cause us to remain the same, or worse, hold us back from realizing our full potential.

The most disempowering stories are often the ones we tell ourselves.

When we allow our mind to focus on a limiting story (such as “I’m not good enough” or “I will never be able to do this”), we trigger the same cascade of stress hormones as if we were being chased by a tiger. We create our own nightmares through the stories we tell ourselves about what might happen.

“The most important question anyone can ask is: What myth am I living?” — Carl Jung

As humanity, the stories we believe about ourselves determine how we treat one another. As long as we believe in the idea that we are not all part of the same human family, but only part of a certain “group,” we will act accordingly.

The more we can understand and believe in our interconnectedness and mutual interdependence, the more we will treat ourselves and one another with a greater sense of compassion. What story are we telling about humanity through the living of our lives?

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