From Neurons to Narratives: How Stories increase attention, retention, and engagement.
In 1944, two psychologists studying interpersonal perception, Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel, created a film starring a couple of triangles, a circle, and a square. In the now classic experiment, they asked subjects to describe what they saw. Have a gander:
With the exception of one person, every participant imbued the geometric figures with emotions, intention, and motivations. In short, they told a story. Here is a sample of one such participant description:
A man has planned to meet a girl and the girl comes along with another man. The first man tells the second 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 to get out of the way and hesitates and finally goes in. She apparently does not want to be with the first man. (Heider & Simmel, 1944)
The Heider and Simmel’s study points to an important fact of human existence: we use stories to organize and make sense of reality.
As a teacher, I’m fascinated by the use and effectiveness of narratives. “I have a story to tell you,” is a sure-fire way to get my students’ attention. In his 15-year study of college professors, Ken Bain, President of the Best Teachers Institute, noted that exceptional teachers, across fields, know how to tell a good story.
The best professors tended to use warm language, to be explicit, to be complete, and to tell the story and the explanation … They would bring the listener into their material. Less accomplished professors, in contrast, often used cool language. They would refer to the information as if they were afraid to tell the story, skipping important steps in an explanation. (Bain, 2004)
What is it about stories that connect? Why does effective storytelling produce emotional and cognitive resonance? To explore this further, I contacted one of the best storytellers I know, author Margaret Atwood. In an email exchange, Atwood explained it like this:
Complex language is one of our oldest and arguably our most defining human technology. Stories come out of it: This happened, then this happened, then this happened.
You can teach by maxims: “Don’t swim with crocodiles” — which always sound a bit like nagging. Or you can tell the story of Thrdj, who paid no attention and went swimming with crocodiles. Suddenly the river turned red, and then Thrdj washed ashore minus his head. Thrdj without a head wins hands down, wouldn’t you say?
Short answer: we’re hard-wired for stories. Small children understand This-happens and then This before they can talk.
Atwood’s notion that stories are one of the most basic and effective ways to transmit information is supported by research. Studies have demonstrated, for example, that in contrast to expository texts, narrative texts are associated with increased recall, better comprehension, and faster reading time. This shouldn’t be surprising as stories engage more of our brains than a dry list of facts.
The power of stories has led some scholars to argue that storytelling has a “privileged status” in human cognition. According to neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, stories are “a fundamental way in which the brain organizes information in a practical and memorable manner.”
This organization takes place at a very early age. In a study examining the “morality of babies,” researchers exposed infants as young as six months to a dramatization reminiscent of the Heider and Simmel reel. In the experiment, babies would watch a little goggly-eyed circle struggle to make its way up a hill (goal + conflict) only to be either helped or hindered by another geometrical figure (e.g. a triangle or square). After, the babies would be presented with both the pro-social and anti-social figures: 80 percent of the time, they would reach for the helping figure.
While the study itself examined the moral awareness of babies, it’s reasonable to conclude that the only way babies could make sense of the data is through story (a conclusion that is shared by the authors of the study).
Our brains seem to be wired to interpret and receive information in the form of narratives. But stories do more than effectively impart information. They also connect us.
Princeton neuroscientist Uri Hasson has demonstrated that when people listen to the same story their brains synch-up, including high-order areas like their prefrontal cortex. This is true whether they’re listening or telling the story - which is interesting because speaking and listening involve different brain processes. Hasson called this linkage “neural coupling.”
Research done by Paul Zak, Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, has shown that a compelling story with an emotional trigger causes people to be more understanding, trusting and open to ideas. Such stories tend to release chemicals such as cortisol (distress response associated with increased focus) and oxytocin (empathic response associated with increased bonding). After being exposed to an emotionally potent story, subjects were much more likely to share money with strangers or contribute to a charity.
Our feel for stories runs deep. Stories don’t just have a privileged status in human cognition, but also in the human condition. As educators, facilitators, and researchers, it would be foolish not to utilize the power of storytelling.
In part two of this series, I’ll break down how we might do that. How, in other words, we can turn the gray matter of facts into the vivid colors of story.