“The stories we tell literally make the world. If you want to change the world, you need to change your story.”
Goldilocks and The Bears. Little Red Riding Hood. Panchatantra. The Hardy Boys. Cinderella. Tenali Raman. Akbar and Birbal. Sounds familiar?
Stories incite ideas. They make us feel excited, inspired, frightened, angry, happy, and all sorts of emotions we can ever imagine. And what else controls these emotions? Our BRAIN.
Our brains love stories. A fascinating research showed that during a storytelling session, the listener’s brain patterns and activities started mirroring that of the storyteller’s with negligible delay! What was more surprising was that the synchronization of the brain’s patterns between the listener and the storyteller appeared in basic language processing areas as well as the higher networks responsible for conceptual understanding. The findings of this research show that we are excellent at visualizing and predicting other people's emotional connections and motivation.
Evidence of shared emotions and interconnectivity with people also comes from an evolutionary point of view. Researchers say that stories have always been an essential part of our survival. Be it the stories our ancestors told each other sitting by the fire after a hunt or the childhood stories that are often shared in family gatherings; they have been instrumental in passing down wisdom from one generation to the other.
Stories definitely help in promoting social skills, thanks to the lasting feeling of empathy that stories create. But did you know that stories significantly affect our brain structures and functions apart from emotions? Yes, you read that right!
Stories affect our brains in the following ways:
Our brain releases a particular hormone called oxytocin when we connect with the characters in a story. Oxytocin is also called the love hormone. The increased flow of oxytocin while reading about a fictional character can make us feel close to them despite not having any physical or personal contact with them.
As the name suggests, “mirror neurons” mirror other people's feelings (their neurons) and make us feel the same as the person is feeling at that moment. A crucial neuro-phenomenon for empathy, our mirror neurons get activated while we are reading, watching, or listening to a story. That’s why we feel the fear that some fictional characters feel in a story or cry during a sad scene in a movie. Technically, the fictional character’s emotions get mapped onto our brain’s sensory domains.
Stories increase our neural activity by connecting two halves of our brain—the left and the right. The left half (or the hemisphere) is facts and data-driven, while the latter takes charge of creativity and feelings. Good stories present both data and creativity. As a result, our brain is completely at work, thereby increasing neural activity and making more connections between the existing and the presented knowledge.
Stories also have the superpower of consolidating memory through emotions. Stories make us feel emotions, which signals the brain that whatever we are experiencing is crucial. This increases our brain’s attention power and starts storing information (filled with emotions) in the deeper regions of our brain. Our degree of relatability to a story also predicts the recalling of the information presented in the story. Simply put, stories enable our brains to store information easily for later recall or retrieval.
Much of what stories do to our brains depend on the art of storytelling. What exactly should be in a story to create an impact in our brains?
A trigger for attention: Attention is the forefather of all major cognitive areas. Only when we pay attention do we remember and feel related emotions. A story that creates a stir will likely attract the brain’s resources to attend to the new information. Hence, stories with nice plots and suspense usually are remembered better than the ones that are simply put.
Empathy: Like in the real world, empathy is the key to creating connections in the story wonderland. A sense of contact between the listener and the story is accomplished through empathy. Create elements of empathy and interconnectivity in the story and have the audience be the guide in your story. This will help the audience experience transportation—an entry into the land of your stories.
Have an element of novelty: The audience remembers new stories that are not aligned with the existing plots. Scientifically, novelty improves memory. The reason behind this connection is attention. When we are presented with something new, we pay more attention to understanding, subsequently improving our memory consolidation process. Though the basic elements of a story are similar, what a unique story presents are the novelty in its content and the way that content is presented to an audience.
Thus, attention, empathy, and novelty are the key ingredients for an effective storytelling experience. The neuroscience of storytelling has far-reaching implications. From top brands for marketing to academicians for their research dissemination, submerge themselves in understanding the art of storytelling and its neuroscientific consequences.
Aldama, F. L. (2015). The science of storytelling: Perspectives from cognitive science, neuroscience, and the humanities.
Cormick, C. (2019). Who doesn't love a good story?—What neuroscience tells about how we respond to narratives. Journal of Science Communication, 18(5), Y01.
Martinez-Conde, S., Alexander, R. G., Blum, D., Britton, N., Lipska, B. K., Quirk, G. J., ... & Macknik, S. L. (2019). The storytelling brain: how neuroscience stories help bridge the gap between research and society. Journal of Neuroscience, 39(42), 8285-8290.