Susan Weinschenk Ph.D.

Brain Wise

Your Brain On Stories

Stories are powerful because they more fully engage the brain.

Posted Nov 04, 2014

One day, many years ago, when I was early in my career, I found myself in front of a classroom full of people who didn’t want to be there. Their boss had told them they had to attend the class I was giving. I knew that many, even most, of them thought the class was a waste of their time, and knowing that was making me nervous. I decided to be brave and forge ahead. Certainly my great content would grab their attention, right?

I took a deep breath, smiled, and with a strong voice, I said “Hello everyone. I’m certainly glad to be here.” More than half the class wasn’t even looking at me. They were reading their emails and writing out to do lists. One guy had the morning newspaper open and was reading that. It was one of those moments where seconds seem like hours. I thought to myself in panic, What am I going to do?

Then I had an idea. “Let me tell you a story," I said. At the word “story” everyone’s head jerked up and all eyes were on me. I knew I only had a few seconds to start a story that would hold their attention. “It was 1988 and a team of Navy officers on the ship Vincennes in the Persian Gulf, were staring at a computer screen. Something had just appeared on the radar in protected air space. They had orders to shoot down any hostile aircraft. Was this a hostile aircraft? Was it a military plane? Was it a commercial airliner? They had 2 minutes to decide what to do. 

I had them! Everyone was interested and riveted. I finished the story, which nicely made my point about why it’s important to design usable computer interfaces, and we were off to a great start. The rest of the day flew by, everyone was interested and engaged, and I got some of my best teacher evaluations ever. 

Everyone likes stories. We like to listen to stories, read stories, watch stories (movies, TV, theatre) and tell stories. In fact, stories are our normal mode of information processing. Stories are so normal to us that we don’t even stop to think about why that is.

Let’s say you are listening to me give a presentation on the global economy. I’m NOT telling a story, but giving you facts and figures. If we had you hooked up to an fMRI machine we would see that your auditory cortex is active, as you’re listening, as well as Wernicke’s area of the brain where words are processed. If you were reading a newspaper article on the same topic then we would see, again Wernicke’s area as well as your visual cortex as you are reading.

But what if I started telling you a story about a family in South America that is being affected by changes in the global economy – a story about the father going to work in a foreign country to earn enough for the family, and the mother having to drive 100 kilometers for health care… what’s going on in your brain now? the Wernicke’s area would be active again, as well as the same auditory or visual cortices, BUT now there’s more activity. We would see many other parts of your brain light up. If, in my story, I described the sharp smell of the pine forest high in the Andes where this family lives, your olfactory sensory areas of the brain would be active as though you were smelling the forest. If I described the mother driving over rutted muddy roads, with the vehicle careening from side to side, your motor cortex would be lighting up as though you were driving on a bumpy road. And if I started talking about the devastation the family felt when their young son died before he could get medical treatment, then the empathy areas of the brain would be active.

Which means that you are literally using more of your brain when you are listening to a story. And because you are having a richer brain event, you enjoy the experience more, you understand the information more deeply, and retain it longer.

Paul Zak, a professor at Claremont College and author of The Moral Molecule: How Trust Works, researches the role of oxytocin. Oxytocin is a neurochemical in the brain that Zak says gives the "it's safe to approach others" signal in the brain. In his research he has discovered that:

  • If you develop tension in the story you will sustain attention.
  • If you sustain attention then it is more likely that the people hearing the story will start to the share the emotions of the main characters in the story.
  • If people share the emotions of the main characters then they are likely to mimic the feelings and behaviors of the characters when the story is over.
  • Listening to a character story like this can cause oxytocin to be released.

And if oxytocin is released then it is more likely that people will trust the situation and the storyteller and more likely that they will take whatever action the storyteller asks them to take.

What do you think? Do you use stories purposely to increase engagement when you communicate?

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