Q&A with Professor of Neuroscience Uri Hasson

Uri Hasson’s research is illuminating how storytelling fosters deep social interactions through brain-to-brain connection.

Uri Hasson’s research is illuminating how storytelling fosters deep social interactions through brain-to-brain connection.

A native of Israel, Hasson is currently a professor in the psychology department and the Neuroscience Institute at Princeton University. His research is part of a growing trend in neuroscience toward uncovering the neural activity that drives human behavior in response to real-life, everyday events. His storytelling work explores how storytellers and audiences interact to create shared memory.

As a neuroscientist, what interests you about storytelling?

Storytelling is something that humans do on a daily basis. It’s a very complicated task that involves many brain functions and it’s a very efficient tool for people to communicate what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling, and what they want other people to think and feel. It has a way of taking control over the brain responses, and this tight control over the brain responses provides a really amazing tool for us to understand how the brain works in real-life, complex situations.

Can you tell us a little bit about what you’ve learned through your research when it comes to the relationship between storytelling, memory, and imagination?

We’ve found that you can use storytelling as a way to transport people into your experiences and make them live your memories. It’s really a way to transfer memories across brains. I can give you a concrete example: let’s say I went to an experience in Princeton last week with my kids, and now I’m retelling the memory to you. What I’m doing is reactivating, using words, the neural patterns that happened to me last week. Those same brain patterns will now emerge in your brain, as if you had been with me a week ago going to this experience. So storytelling is really a way to transfer our brain patterns to other people.

And it sounds like not just a way to transfer them, but to get them in sync.

Yeah, you get them in sync, and others can relive the experience with you. And remember, for me, when I’m retelling, I need to reactivate my memory, right? Because I’ve been there — I know Princeton, I know my kids. But you have to imagine it — I’m not sure that you’ve ever been in Princeton, you’ve never met my kids. So you need to imagine stuff that I’m remembering. And so the fact that our brain patterns become aligned and coupled using storytelling… it’s like magic, right?

Amazing! So, what happens to our brains when we hear a story that is effective — what is it that helps us connect with whomever’s telling the story and focus our attention?

Basically, when everything comes together, and you really get me, then this “click” of coupling happens in which many of your brain responses across different brain areas — each brain area responding in a different way — will respond similarly to my own brain area. So our brains become coupled in time, and it’s like we’re dancing together, and we become more and more similar to each other in our brain responses. The better the understanding, the better the “click,” the stronger the neural coupling.

And when we’re seeing more neural coupling, what does that translate to?

You’re going to understand me better, you’re going to have similar feelings to the feeling that I am having, and you’re going to remember it better.

And when stories don’t connect with an audience, what’s happening then, and why?

We know that in many cases we fail to communicate our stories, right? We’re living in a very polarized society. We see more and more that when people with different filters about reality, different belief systems, different memories — when they confront the story as an audience, they get it in a different way. They give it a different interpretation than the interpretation of the speaker. And then this coupling is going down, and understanding gets weaker.

So one way to think about it is that storytelling is not a one-way interaction. It’s not that the storyteller influences the audience. The audience has to want to come and meet the storyteller in the middle. It’s really a joint meeting of the audience and the storyteller, and it really depends on both sides of the communication to have this coupling emerge. Both sides need to want to be coupled, and be able to be coupled.

I think your J. D. Salinger study is also relevant here. Can you tell us about that?

In this study, we wanted to see how the audience’s perception of a situation might color their interpretation of a story. So we took a story written by J.D. Salinger, and in the story a husband loses track of his wife at a party. He comes back to his apartment late at night, alone, and he’s a very anxious guy; he calls his best friend, asking, “Did you see my wife?” And next to the best friend there is a naked woman. Salinger is smart to not tell the audience who she is, so the audience has to guess.

So what we did in this experiment is that we disambiguated the context. To half of the people we said, “The naked woman is the wife, she’s having an affair.” To the other half we said, “That’s the best friend’s girlfriend — the wife is very loyal.” So people got two different contexts, or filters, on reality. And basically we saw that this one sentence that we said before the story even started really created a difference in the two groups.

We put them in fMRI, we scanned their brains, and then we measured how similar they were to each other. In specific brain areas that care about narrative, there were differences across the groups. By looking at the similarity in the right places in the brain, I could tell with 90 percent confidence what someone was thinking based on how similar they were to other brains; I could tell you whether they thought that the wife was having an affair or that the husband was crazy jealous — just based on their similarity to people that shared their beliefs. So this is a nice demonstration that this neural coupling, it really captures understanding, and it’s very sensitive to what the audience brings to the story, right? Because it was the exact same story.

What kind of insights can we gather from studies like this that can help us as a society to better deal with today’s polarized political environment?

I think we need to go outside of the storytelling into facts. Let’s say the president of the United States is accused of sleeping with a pornstar while his wife was pregnant, and then he pays money to silence this story. Now, half of the population believes that this is a made-up story, and half believes that it’s a true story, right? It’s a very similar situation. But which half is right? How will you know?

First you need to remember that he either did or did not do it — he cannot have done both. So there is storytelling, but there are also the facts outside of the story. How do we know about facts? We do an investigation, right? We follow the money, we listen to the recording of the lawyers, we ask the police and the FBI to look into it, right? So we have mechanisms in society to decide about facts.

I think what has happened now is that first we lost the tools to decide about facts. Now we’re living in a situation where, oh, both of them are stories and you simply need to pick one as you please. We don’t have the mechanisms outside of the story to decide which is true, and that’s really bad.

Now, each of us is listening to his own ensemble of news channels fed by Facebook and Google News and Apple News, so each of us gets different information, different filters. It’s a terrible thing to let machines control your content. They give you what you want to listen to, not what you need to listen to. Because of that, we don’t have common ground — each one of us is coming to the same story with a very different filter. This fragments our society and makes it more difficult to even notice that we don’t understand each other. So I think that’s the problem, and the fix is way outside of storytelling.

Focusing for a minute on tools that are available to storytellers — let’s say a storyteller is confronting an audience that does have very different beliefs and backgrounds. Are there any techniques that could improve neural coupling when they’re not really approaching the story from the same angle?

Yes. There is no formula, but yes. You need to calibrate the dynamics. First you need to adjust which words you are using — you can even acknowledge some of the differences. I can give you an example: Obama gave a speech in Jerusalem, and he wanted to convince a very right-wing audience to go to do a peace process. So they’re definitely thinking differently than him. His approach when he gave the speech was smart: he started by acknowledging that he fully understood them, and only then did he move to the peace process. So yeah, there are techniques to open the audience, and they might be effective, yes.

So is the solution to make sure that people feel heard and understood?

That’s definitely part of it — understanding the other side. People should stop thinking that the other side is crazy, fanatic, and not thinking.

Interested in joining the conversation about the reinvention of stories in the digital age? Subscribe to our newsletter and apply now to attend the annual invitation-only Future of StoryTelling Summit at fost.org/apply.

Future of StoryTelling

Future of StoyTelling (FoST) is a creative community of…

Future of StoryTelling

Future of StoyTelling (FoST) is a creative community of people from the worlds of media, technology, and communications who are exploring how storytelling is evolving in the digital age.

Future of StoryTelling

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Reinventing the way stories are told.

Future of StoryTelling

Future of StoyTelling (FoST) is a creative community of people from the worlds of media, technology, and communications who are exploring how storytelling is evolving in the digital age.

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