Stories, Stereotypes & Brain Scans: The Better Story of the Science of Story

Thaler Pekar
Raising a Beautiful Mind
7 min readAug 9, 2023


Isn’t this brain scan impressive? It’s the scan of a person listening to a story! You can see how their brain lights up!

But it’s not an image of a brain processing a story. I misled you. To make a point. To demonstrate neuroessentialism, the tactic of invoking neuroscience to justify all sorts of claims about human behavior.

You’re likely as eager as I am to understand why humans do what we do — and stories, science, and photos provide answers and explanations of natural behaviors. Photos, especially — we believe that what we see with our own eyes is true; we trust photographic snapshots. So, when we see a photographic image of the brain, it’s doubly seductive! It’s science! And it’s a snapshot! Add on a story about story and brain mapping, and now it’s super seductive.

Thanks to neurology and neuroelectrophysiology, we do have a good understanding that many parts of the brain are involved in story production and story comprehension. Thanks to ongoing studies in neuroscience, we’re improving our understanding of how these brain areas work, and how they work together.

But it’s an oversimplification to proclaim, “Our brains light up when we hear a story.” Neuroscience has not proven, “Our brains are wired for story.”

I want to focus on the many claims that the effectiveness of stories is somehow “explained” by “brain science,” and especially by “brain mapping.” This is pseudoscience. This is neuroessentialism, an inaccurate, one-dimensional understanding of how the brain works. An image of the brain, no matter how colorful and sexy, does not constitute a full explanation of human behavior.

There are many dangers of neuroessentialism. These include stigmatizing people with psychological illness and denying their need for actual care, and dismissing the impacts of social, economic, environmental, and political systems on behavior and psychological health. By stripping people of agency and ignoring the societal contexts in which they live, neuroessentialism risks becoming a modern phrenology. Like phrenology, neuroessentialism imposes an ignorant, constrictive, and falsely definitive accounting for human nuance and paradox.

Most of the knowledge gleaned about how people respond to story and why it’s such a powerful communication tool is based in psychology, behavioral science, or an understanding of people within a socioeconomic context — not neuroscience. For example, developmental psychology, neural biology, and cognitive science research has demonstrated the effectiveness of story in accelerating comprehension, engagement, trust, memory, motivation, sensemaking, and self-understanding, and in introducing and negotiating norms and values, among other human traits. A lazy neuroessentialism of story avoids the hard work of fully understanding people and the systems in which we function to create, share, and process stories.

Stories & Brains Make Sense of the Future

There’s a better story of the science of story.

Think of the brain as a prediction machine, whose job is to anticipate and predict the future to safeguard our survival. Our brains use those predictions to help us analyze incoming information. We seek to find order in chaos.

And think of stories assisting us in making sense of the past and the complexities of the present and helping us to make assumptions about — and so predict — the future. It’s why, when we see the car approaching, we walk faster crossing the street. It’s how we knew that news reports about the recent earthquake in Turkey would be followed by stories of relief efforts.

Yesterday, I visited my 90-year-old aunt. Pat is my only aunt and I adore her. She surprised me with the gift of a beautiful bracelet that her brother had given to her. We went to lunch and had a lovely visit.

Here’s a demonstration of how brains and stories act as sensemaking and prediction machines: Did you picture the bracelet my aunt gave me? You didn’t actually see or hear about any of the details in your image: you filled those in, you accessed information in your brain. Did you guess (correctly) that I was going to hug her goodbye? That was your brain, predicting the future.

Brain Mapping 101

My brother Jim is a Professor of Radiology and Radiological Science at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. He specializes in brain imaging and magnetic resonance research. This is his explanation of brain function and brain mapping:

Brain function is, pretty much, neuronal function.

Neuron cell bodies do ‘computations.’

Action potentials travel down neuronal axons.

Neurotransmitters exchange across neuronal synapses.

But we cannot image any of that with Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). So, we use perfusion — blood flow — as a proxy.

This idea dates from the 19th century, when Dr. Angelo Mosso studied patients with cranial defects (actual holes in their heads) and observed their brain pulsations increase, e.g., when doing arithmetic. It works in the same way that a gardener waters the entire garden for the sake of a thirsty flower. We’re not seeing a wet flower; we’re seeing that the ground gets wet.

Blood flow is under active control. When brain areas are activated, they use more oxygen, so more blood is supplied. The significant increase in blood flow is way more than is needed to supply the increase in oxygen consumption. So the brain “blushes” — turns more pink — and that’s, essentially, what is seen by fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imagining) . In essence, movies of your brain in action.

What Brainmapping Does — and Doesn’t — Show

Right now, tap your fingers on the top of your desk. You have just activated the areas in your brain that are involved in motor and sensory function!

Here’s an image of what that may look like in your brain. This is very much a map of your brain: It’s connecting and integrating the different parts of your brain that are working together when you tap your fingers. The image shows how your brain is organized. It reports on how your brain functions when you tap your fingers.

The thing is, correlational neuroimaging cannot address causality.

Here’s an example of what I mean by causality. When we learn about storytelling, many of us are taught that “ The King died and then the Queen died” simply presents two events chronologically. “ The King died and the Queen died of grief,” however, links the events with causality.

Those areas of your brain that “lit up” when you tapped your fingers? They do different things. The simple act of finger tapping requires (at a minimum) your brain to act on initiation, execution, sensation, and monitoring.

But neuroimaging is blind to this. Neuroimaging cannot distinguish these roles. Brain scans do not assign motivation or even explain linear processes.

Let’s take the much-popularized idea of reward centers and fear centers. We’re often told that activation of the amygdala means fear. That when we are frightened, we revert to “lizard brain.” If this were true, Jim says, “a rodent with a lesioned (i.e., experimentally surgically destroyed) amygdala would be a fearless and heroic Rambo Rat. But in fact, a rodent with a lesioned amygdala is a rat that cannot learn well. Because the amygdala is widely involved in the association of salient affective (emotional) aspects of stimuli. Your amygdala does not just ‘do fear’, it is also involved in positive emotions.”

It’s so comforting to believe our complex behaviors can be simply understood! How science-y story practitioners sound when insisting that brain imaging “proves” the power of story!

This is the sin of reverse inference. The sin of reverse inference is, in essence, an oversimplified view of brain segregation. It insists each bit of the brain can do only one thing. Which is wrong.

Reverse inference is simplistic storytelling. Like stereotypes are simplistic storytelling. Stereotypes lead to one dimensional understanding. They ignore the agency and complexity of human beings. The very complexity of which story is so adept at capturing.

One of the reasons why people may assign this causality to “brains lighting up” is precisely because our brains are predictive machines. We are searching for answers and, faced with increasing complexity and uncertainties, we grab at possible explanations. The idea of our brains lighting up and making us do things offers both predictions and possible explanations of human behaviors. ‘Our brains made us do it’ provides a seemingly realistic causal element. It makes a good, efficient story. In the marketplace of ideas, certainty sells.

A Better Story of the Science of Story

Story is a powerful communication tool, combining and compressing facts, values, and emotions. Stories are effective in entertaining us, motivating us, and educating us. Different stories are effective for different reasons, such as inspiring awe or aspiration, connecting to a memory, or organizing and making sense of complex information.

Yet two people can have vastly different reactions to the same story. This could be because of a lack of trust in the storyteller, or different contexts of experience. You are a complicated and complex person! Your brain is a prediction machine in large part based on what has been input: your experiences. An emergency room doctor can make split second diagnoses because they have input knowledge. You can plan a meal for your family because you have experience of what people like and dislike. Think of this way: Your brain isn’t wired for story — you wire your brain toward story.

The best applied story practitioners and narrative strategists understand that, because our brains are predictive machines, stories offer us agency in discovery and understanding. And we hear and process stories within complicated social contexts. They reject the lazy neuroessentialism of, “His brain made him do it” and, crucially, “One story made him do it!” Instead, they respectfully work within complicated social, economic, and political contexts and complex communities of storytellers and story listeners.

Right now, brain imaging does not “prove” the power of story. If you’re looking for a reason to understand the behavioral and psychological impact of story, look to behavioral and psychological science research on learning, persuasion, and decision-making. We don’t need to engage in pseudoscience, assigning causality and reverse inference and claiming that the power of story is proven by brains lighting up when listening to stories in a scanner.

We already have a powerful story about the science of story: a narrative about story’s incredible ability to infiltrate and affect the ways in which humans process, comprehend, and share information, especially complex and emotional information.



Thaler Pekar
Raising a Beautiful Mind

Pioneer in narrative & communication. Keynoted on 4 continents. Award-winning video producer. Public & oral historian. Renown for finding stories.