The Neuropsychology of Story

In a classic psychological experiment in 1944, Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel made a short film comprising three geometrical shapes moving in different speeds and various directions. There were a large triangle, a small triangle, and a circle moving in and out of a rectangle with an opening.

Heider & Simmel (1944) Short Motion Film

Observers reported the movements of these shapes as human action. More specifically, human emotion and motivation were attributed to these geometrical shapes.

One subject reported:

“A man has planned to meet a girl and the girl comes along with another man. The first man tells the second man to go; the second tells the first, and he shakes his head. Then the two men have a fight and the girl starts to go into the room… She apparently does not want to be with the first man. The first man follows her into the room after having left the second in a rather weakened condition leaning on the wall outside the room. The girl gets worried and races from one corner to the other in the far part of the room… The girl gets out of the room in a sudden dash just as man number two gets the door open. The two chase around the outside of the room together, followed by man number one, but they finally elude him and get away. The first man goes back and tries to open his door, but he is so blinded by rage and frustration that he cannot open it… “ (Heider & Simmel, 1944)

This is rather fascinating, isn’t it?

Why did observers give meaning to meaningless shapes in motion?

According to Theodore R. Sarbin (1986), “human beings think, perceive, imagine, and make moral choices according to narrative structures” (Sarbin, 1986, p. 8). It is what he calls the narratory principle, which is an organising principle for people to make sense of the human condition. He explains that when people are presented with pictures or descriptive phrases, a person will connect them to form a story, “an account that relates the pictures or the meanings of the phrases in some patterned way” (ibid.). He adds:

“On reflection, we discover that the pictures or meanings are held together by the implicit or explicit use of plot. When the stimulus material depicts people, the story will reflect recognizable human sentiments, goals, purposes, valuations, and judgments. The plot will influence the flow of action of the constructed narrative figures.” (ibid.).

Though Sarbin seems to suggest we think in stories, such a powerful thesis can be seen in how trauma victims ‘connect the dots’, especially to unexplainable circumstances. The more coherent and organised the account is, say researchers, the “greater the likelihood of salutary gains as a result of such narration” (Mar, 2004, p. 1414; see also Pennebaker & Graybeal, 2001; Smyth, 1998).

When I was faced with a volatile, near-death experience in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2012, my thoughts raced in all sorts of direction.

“Why me?” I kept asking. 
“Am I not here to volunteer my services? Why did I get targeted?”

For months, my body reacted to the traumatic experience (the specifics of which I do not wish to elaborate on social media), resulting in insomnia for 2 months. I sought psychiatric help, but I was not diagnosed as having PTSD. Yet, my body involuntarily went into shock at a certain time. It was only when I pieced the story together (even if it was not accurate or real, as the causes could not be ascertained) for myself that I trudged through the mental muck and found a thread of sanity to move on.

Memories, in the same way, are organised in stories. We remember locations, conversations, sounds, smells, happenings — and even if our memory fails, we are still able to ‘make sense’ of a certain coherence.

Here’s the working hypothesis based on Sarbin’s narratory principle: story=logic.

It is this logic in our brain that is most fascinating — because for the longest time, people have relegated stories to “affect”, “emotions”, or worse, “fluff”.

Scholars in the past had thought that the mind is the rational organ, while the emotion (or the heart) is the irrational counterpart. That cartesian split is such a flawed perspective today, yet we have been so ingrained that we fail to recognise scholarly work and continue to perpetuate untruths about the mind, the heart, and the association of stories.

But there is a missing connection from story and logic, which is emotion. Here’s the new formula:


In the not-so-recent studies in neuroscience, Antonio Damasio (1994) discovered that emotions play a major part in decision-making, especially in his observation with people with damage to the brain where emotions are generated. In answering simple questions on what to eat — presumably rather logical decisions — the patients could not decide if they wanted chicken or turkey.

Think of the times when you splurged on an expensive watch. Or a sports car that you couldn’t really afford. Do you tell others a ‘story’ later to justify your purchase?

Well, that’s it.

Emotions come first, then story comes next that brings logic to it.

The implications are several.

If you need to convince or persuade anyone in a negotiation deal or sales pitch or conference presentation, going into statistics, quarterly reports, and figures will only give the perception of “rationality”, but at the deeper core of decision-making, you would need to dig deeper to a more emotional level and work harder on telling a story.

The story that makes sense.

Not for you. 
But for your listener.


Damasio, A. (1994). Descartes’ error: Emotion, rationality and the human brain (1st ed.). New York: Putnam.

Heider, F., & Simmel, M. (1944). An Experimental Study of Apparent Behavior. The American Journal Of Psychology, 57(2), 243.

Mar, R. (2004). The neuropsychology of narrative: story comprehension, story production and their interrelation. Neuropsychologia, 42(10), 1414–1434.

Sarbin, T. (1986). Narrative Psychology: The storied nature of human conduct (1st ed.). Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc.