“We dream in narrative, daydream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate, and live by narrative.”
—Wayne Eastman, “Telling Alternative Stories”
What is the relationship between storytelling and the brain? Stories, defined as having a beginning, middle, and end and endeavoring to wrest some sort of meaning from experience, are universal across all cultures and through all known history. In her book “The White Album,” Joan Didion famously began, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Writers have long known that we impose a narrative line on experience. We use stories to pass on information, to communicate and influence people.
Our conscious thought is most often expressed in story form; in fact, the ability to tell stories is one of the characteristics that distinguish us as human beings. But why and how do stories affect our brains, and, in turn, how does the shape of a story or narrative change the structure and functioning of our brains?
For years, educators like professor Roger Schank have pointed out that information is retained better through stories. Biologist James Zull notes that learning is deepest when it engages the most parts of the brain. And studies have shown that people retain about one-fifth of what they read, but four-fifths of the images they form in their minds. Since the brain is structured or “wired” to detect patterns, and stories are stored as images and symbols, they not only are recalled more accurately than facts, they are more effective as vehicles to convey information.
But what is actually going on inside the brain when we construct stories? In his work on the neurobiology of interpersonal experience, renowned neuropsychiatrist Dr. Daniel Siegel points out the importance of storytelling in brain functioning. Stories engage all parts of the brain. When we tell a story — even to ourselves — the left hemisphere, where we sequence cause and effect, and where we store the factual memories needed to narrate our lives, links with the right hemisphere. The right side is the site of autobiographic memory, symbolic, intuitive, and imaginative truth. To shape a coherent narrative, then, the divergent sides of our brains must engage in integration. This linkage, in turn, promotes more sophisticated and complex brain functioning. Siegel says we can use this storytelling ability to strengthen neural connections, form new neural pathways and shift the architecture of the brain. Following on the heals of the work of neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, Siegel believes that storytelling’s ability to reconcile past and present, and factual data and emotion, is what creates our sense of a unified self.
Recently, cognitive neuroscientists have documented that narratives trigger a release of neurotransmitters that affect both hemispheres of the brain. An experiment done by scientists at Princeton University showed neural coupling between storyteller and listener. Under fMRI scan, it was shown that stories activate the rational frontal cortex of our brains with the emotional limbic region of our midbrain. Both storyteller and listener engage with facts and emotions, which creates a bond between them. Thus, the telling and shaping of stories not only connects regions within our own brains, but those same regions are almost instantaneously mirrored in the listener’s brain, acting as a social glue both cognitively and emotionally.
In fact, so prevalent is our need to form coherent narratives that we see and create stories even when none are there. In a famous study done in 1944 at Smith College, psychologists showed subjects animated triangles and circles. When these people were asked to explain what was happening, they interpreted the display in story form, as in, “The triangle is being chased by the circle.”
Given how our own stories shape our internal worlds and brain structure, it is not surprising then, to learn that stories told by other people can have a dramatic effect on us. Narratives are an influential method of persuasion. They provoke interest, invite involvement, and encourage empathy. For years now, advertisers, lawyers, journalists, and politicians have been using the ability to shape facts into compelling storylines to convince us to buy products, judge events, read articles, and vote.
A study involving brain scans revealed that when people read the same story or watched the same movie, the same brain-areas lit up as if they were in the real-life situations of the characters they were witnessing. The subjects in this study identified with the stories to such a degree that they adopted the role of the protagonist as their own.
William Casebeer of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Virginia has taken these results a step further and started using fMRI to see what happens in the brain’s reward centers when people listen to a story. In Casebeer’s study, the stories were short but had the basic structure of setup, climax, and resolution — just like a good yarn or a “Star Wars” movie. Casebeer found that something about the stories triggered the reward mechanism in the brain and acted like a drug on the people studied. It was as if they had taken a collective drink. Casebeer believes storytelling may prove as addictive as a narcotic and that understanding the mechanism of storytelling can allow it to be put to use not just in applications such as moviemaking, swaying a jury or enticing us to buy a particular brand of soap, but also in helping military institutions to develop officers who are more effective leaders and more willing to exercise moral courage under pressure. Storytelling may have evolved in cultures as a way of promoting social and cultural unity.
Telling stories does far more than link disparate images together; it allows us to understand information and unites us in our beliefs. Furthermore, narrative structure may be biologically based and hardwired into the very architecture of our brains. The new research in neuroscience has no definitive answers yet, but the findings suggest that stories work like threads that strengthen neural connections, integrating the separate hemispheres, thereby allowing our brains to function in a more complex and unified manner.