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Why Sharing Stories Brings People Together

Our brains sync up when we tell stories.

In high school, a teammate on my track team told me about the big oak tree in his backyard when he was growing up. One day, his older brother climbed way up into its branches and then called for him to come over. Happy that his bigger brother wanted to include him in the activity, he ran over as quickly as he could. As he gazed up, his brother peed down on him from above.

I couldn't help but laugh, but not simply because of his misfortune. Instead, the thought of him standing there, wide-eyed, and then realizing he'd been tricked surely reminded me of a similar incident of my own. Experience is a wonderful teacher, and I had learned my own lessons about gullibility.

In the years that passed, that teammate became one of my best friends, and I suspect that the story he shared, along with similar ones I told, had something to do with it.

Recently, when I met a woman who makes a living as a professional storyteller, and who has used her narrative talent to win an annual lying competition, she told me about something that happens when she has a group under her spell. When she really enlivens a story, the audience will nod their heads in unison and their eyes will grip onto her movements as she garnishes the plot. They inhale as a group, breathing in her story. She calls the experience "story trance."

A new neuroscience study may explain why telling stories builds empathy and also why, when you tell a good one, people act as if they're watching it unfold before them.

A team of scientists at Princeton, led by Uri Hasson, had a woman tell a story while in an MRI scanner. Functional MRI scans detect brain activity by monitoring blood flow; when a brain region is active it needs more blood to provide oxygen and nutrients. The active regions light up on a computer screen. They recorded her story on a computer and monitored her brain activity as she spoke. She did this twice, once in English and once in Russian; she was fluent in both languages. They then had a group of volunteers listen to the stories through headphones while they had their brains scanned. All of the volunteers spoke English, but none understood Russian. After the volunteers heard the story, Hasson asked them some questions to see how much of each story they understood.

When the woman spoke English, the volunteers understood her story, and their brains synchronized. When she had activity in her insula, an emotional brain region, the listeners did too. When her frontal cortex lit up, so did theirs. By simply telling a story, the woman could plant ideas, thoughts, and emotions into the listeners' brains.

Hasson also looked at listening comprehension. He found that the more the listeners understood the story, the more their brain activity dovetailed with the speaker's. When you listen to stories and understand them, you experience the exact same brain pattern as the person telling the story.

When the woman spoke Russian, the speaker-listener brain coupling disappeared. The woman tried to communicate something that had happened to her, but the listeners could not understand. Her voice had inflection and emotion, but without comprehensible words to clue them into the action, the listeners could not make sense of her story. Except in the early auditory regions involved in processing sounds, their brains did not have corresponding activity.

When you tell a story to a friend, you can transfer experiences directly to their brain. They feel what you feel. They empathize. What's more, when communicating most effectively, you can get a group of people's brains to synchronize their activity. As you relate someone's desires through a story, they become the desires of the audience. When trouble develops, they gasp in unison, and when desires are fulfilled they smile together.

For as long as you've got your audience's attention, they are in your mind. When you hear a good story, you develop empathy with the teller because you experience the events for yourself. This makes sense. Stories should be powerful. They helped us share information long ago before we had a written language and Wikipedia.

The study may also explain another phenomenon of story-telling: story-stealing. Do you have a friend that you can tell one of your stories to, and then two weeks later the friend tells you the same story, except now it happened to them? Perhaps, by telling them, you transferred the story to their brain. They felt as if they were there, if only vicariously through you. Take it as a tribute to your gift as a good storyteller.

Before I get going, does anyone have a good story to share?


Stephens GJ, Silbert LJ, Hasson U. Speaker-listener neural coupling underlies successful communication. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2010 Aug 10;107(32):14425-30.

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