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Storytelling: How neuroscience demonstrates the effectiveness of stories

Insight

19 November 2015

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What is it about stories that grab our attention more so than the average PowerPoint? Think about how easy it is to remember a chapter of a book you have just read, or a funny story somebody told you; some stories stick with us for years, or even a lifetime. Storytelling has become a widely used method of communicating visions, influencing behaviour and inspiring people in businesses. But why are stories such a compelling way to communicate? Neuroscience might hold the answers to this.

Stories reflect our natural way of understanding events1, 2; memory experts have shown that narratives make things easier to remember and understand3. You may have also noticed that words can trigger memories and emotions. So consider this:

  • Just verbally describing an intense situation is enough to activate areas of the brain that deal with emotional responses4

  • Listening to a story activates the brain areas involved in imagining scenarios5

  • Imagining a visual scene activates the same areas of the brain as when we actually see the scene6

 

Essentially, stories activate your imagination and engage your emotions; they light up more of the brain than a stream of bullet points on PowerPoint. You only need think about a dream you had recently to reflect on how compelling your imagination can be. You can visually recreate the characters and scenes in your own head, leading to a sense of immersion and remote experience. Recent developments in neuroscience suggest that we may have mirror neurons to thank for this.

Mirror neurons are brain cells that fire both when you do something (e.g. comb your hair), and also when you watch someone else do it. This applies to emotions too; mirror neurons fire when we see or hear expressed emotion7, which is partly what allows us to recognise and empathise with how the person feels. Try watching people’s faces in the cinema when something unfortunate happens to a movie character; plenty of wincing and cringing goes on, even though it isn’t real life!

It appears that empathy is quite an authentic form of persuasion; a neuroscientist recently found that an emotional story triggered the neurotransmitter oxytocin, which enhances empathy and cooperation, and consequently led to more generous behaviour8. Making a story emotional can also make it more memorable. People are innately motivated to acquire knowledge about the world, particularly where there might be danger or risk, and emotion is like a signal to the brain that the information must be remembered for the future. But storyline matters; research shows that stories containing a dramatic arc are the most effective8, whereby the tension is increased throughout the story and brought to a close at the end. This rising tension captivates our attention and leaves us wanting to know more.

 

It is clear that stories appeal to our imagination and allow us to connect with the information being given in a meaningful way. If you are thinking about using stories to communicate in your business, here are some points to consider:

  • Is there an element of tension in the story? Is something at stake for the characters? This will help people engage with and remember the story.

  • Does it appeal to people’s emotions? Humour, triumph and misfortune all draw attention and help people to empathise with the characters and their situation.

  • If you are looking to inspire, did the story inspire you when you heard it?

 

 

References:

1. Boyd, B. (2009). On the origin of stories: Evolution, cognition, and fiction. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

2. Pace-Schott, E. F. (2013). Dreaming as a story-telling instinct. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 159.

3. Baddeley, A. D. (1999). Essentials of human memory. New York: Psychology Press.

4. Wallentin, M., Nielsen, A. H., Vuust, P., Dohn, A., Roepstorff, A., & Lund, T. E. (2011). Amygdala and heart rate variability responses from listening to emotionally intense parts of a story. NeuroImage, 58, 963-973.

5. Abdul Sabar, N. Y., Xu, Y., Liu, S., Chow, H., Baxter, M., Carson, J., & Braun, A. R. (2014). Neural correlates and network connectivity underlying narrative production and comprehension: A combined fMRI and PET study. Cortex, 57, 107-127.

6. Kosslyn, S. M., Alpert, N. M., Thompson, W. L., Maljkovic, V., Weise, S., Chabris, C., Hamilton, S. E., Rauch, S. L., & Buonanno, F. S. (1993). Visual mental imagery activates topographically organized visual cortex: PET investigations. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 5, 263-287.

7. Ramachandra, V., Depalma, N., & Lisiewski, S. (2009). The role of mirror neurons in processing vocal emotions: Evidence from psychophysiological data. International Journal of Neuroscience, 119, 681-690.  

8. Barraza, J. A., & Zak, P. J. (2009). Empathy towards strangers triggers oxytocin release and subsequent generosity. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1167, 182-189.

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