Tuesday, September 22, 2020
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The Psychological Science of Storytelling

Microphone with blurry audience BG

ResearchBlogging.orgIt hit me about two years ago, sometime after I started this blog. Somewhere between the comedy shows and alarming amount of documentaries I began watching, and the seemingly endless number of people I have met in the last few years, I realized that the social world spins on the axis of stories. It’s hard to believe this fact unless you’re actually in a position where you exploit it. For me, it has become a hard fact of life – if you’re a good storyteller, good things come to you, and people want to be around you. It seems like the most popular people are often the best storytellers, and if you’re a good storyteller, you’re probably good at other things too. But just how do stories have such amazing effects on our lives?

Stories in the Brain

Broca's and Wernicke's Areas

Let’s first talk about stories in our brain. To keep things really simplified; the part of the brain known as Broca’s area is responsible for speech production, whereas Wernicke’s area is responsible for understanding written and spoken language. When information is relayed in a bland way, such as through bullet-points on a PowerPoint slideshow, these areas of the brain activate in the people who are watching. However, your brain processes information very differently when evocative language is introduced.

For example, just hearing certain words related to smell make the brain activate its areas that are related to processing scents, as well as the traditional language-processing areas. Researchers in Spain published a paper in the journal NeuroImage in 2006 that found the primary olfactory cortex – the part of the brain dealing with the processing of smells – was activated when participants read evocative words such as “perfume” or “coffee,” but not “chair” or “key,” which have no association to smell.

In the same year, researchers in France found that words associated with motion activate the motor cortex – an area of the brain associated with voluntary physical movements. For example, saying that someone “kicked the ball” or “grasped the object” not only activated that part of the brain attributed to executing movement, but foot- and hand-related motions were distinct.

Last year, researchers in the US even published a study on metaphors involving texture, where they had participants read brief statements. In addition to the obvious language centers that became active, the sensory cortex – which perceives texture through touch – was active when metaphors like “he had leathery hands” was read, as opposed to “he had strong hands.” Another example is “the singer had a velvet voice,” which was more neurally evocative than “the singer had a pleasing voice.”

Keep in mind that the participants in these experiments are merely reading words, yet their brains are activating, which you would probably expect only to happen by actually performing those actions or experiencing these sensations. But the brain evidently doesn’t distinguish between doing and thinking about doing as much as you would expect. Perhaps this is why vivid stories – such as fiction novels with rich prose – can be so powerful.

The Power of Stories

Of course, stories neither have to be fictional nor particularly rich in prose to be vivid enough for our brains to experience them on more than just a linguistic level. Lifehacker used this tale to highlight the power of storytelling:

In 1748, the British politician and aristocrat John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, spent a lot of his free time playing cards. He greatly enjoyed eating a snack while still keeping one hand free for the cards. So he came up with the idea to eat beef between slices of toast, which would allow him to finally eat and play cards at the same time. Eating his newly invented “sandwich,” the name for two slices of bread with meat in between, became one of the most popular meal inventions in the western world.

What’s interesting about this is that you are very likely to never forget the story of who invented the sandwich ever again. Or at least, much less likely to do so, if it would have been presented to us in bullet points or other purely information-based form.

But beyond the significant neural effects of storytelling, there are also psychosocial effects. The New York Times says the following (bolds are mine):

Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, performed an analysis of 86 fMRI studies, [. . .] and concluded that there was substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals — in particular, interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others. Scientists call this capacity of the brain to construct a map of other people’s intentions “theory of mind.” Narratives offer a unique opportunity to engage this capacity, as we identify with characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and track their encounters with friends and enemies, neighbors and lovers.

It is an exercise that hones our real-life social skills, another body of research suggests. Dr. Oatley and Dr. Mar, in collaboration with several other scientists, reported in two studies, published in 2006 and 2009, that individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective. This relationship persisted even after the researchers accounted for the possibility that more empathetic individuals might prefer reading novels.

A 2010 study by Dr. Mar found a similar result in preschool-age children: the more stories they had read to them, the keener their theory of mind — an effect that was also produced by watching movies but, curiously, not by watching television. (Dr. Mar has conjectured that because children often watch TV alone, but go to the movies with their parents, they may experience more “parent-children conversations about mental states” when it comes to films.)

Fiction, Dr. Oatley notes, “is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.”

I suppose if one was to bring up the stereotype of the fiction-obsessed “nerd,” one might suggest that the consumption of fiction and the “theory of mind” lies on a bell-curve. That is to say, there are many people who consume fiction stories to the point that they may become socially awkward due to a lack of regular social interaction or getting too used to such fantasy worlds, or they may limit their social circles to other people who have the same limited experiences.

But perhaps it’s the case that consuming plenty of fiction is a good thing, unless you consume too much, which is psychologically unhealthy. That makes sense, considering consuming anything too much is bad for you. Hence the fact that it’s called “too much.”

Stories are Everywhere

Storytelling is an interesting activity because of the fact that it’s ubiquitous, yet people don’t even realize it. They often don’t think of the way they interact in terms of storytelling, but most interactions people have involve storytelling in some capacity. This is highlighted in the following video by the comedy group Derrick Comedy, in which the father – a movie executive – insists that his family speak to him as if pitching a marketable story:

While exaggerated, this video may serve to remind you of the storytelling that goes on in our regular interactions. When someone is not good at telling stories, it doesn’t reflect well. However, upon meeting someone for the first time, a really good storyteller can make every listener leave with a remarkably good impression. This is a skill that schools don’t teach, but one that everyone should know. At least… the people who want to get ahead should know.

Of course, stories are told in music videos, commercials, and obviously TV shows. The ones who are good at it tend to be more successful. At the personal/social level, I believe this to be the case as well, if by “successful” we mean popular or something to the effect of getting along well with others, or leaving a good impression. I have no data to support this, but in the last few years it has become very clear to me. There are lots of different TED talks on how to tell stories well, and plenty of examples in the popular culture, not to mention all the books and websites dedicated to that topic.

The following video is from the hit TV show Seinfeld, in which one of the characters relays a story that is so well told that you will probably vividly imagine the scene unfold as you hear it:

Obviously this is much more visual than reading text from a book, but it shows you just how powerful a good story can be. Imagine if you can evoke this kind of imagery in your daily life – how impressive would that be? This is why entertainers like musicians, comedians, and even efficient marketers are so popular. They do things that the layperson can’t do: tell stories well. In fact, Seinfeld was a show famous for such scenes of vivid stories, including this one full of metaphors.

The Bottom Line

As some people say, there’s no such thing as a bad story, just bad storytellers. I tend to agree for the most part. And I also believe that learning the skill of storytelling will simply make you smarter. I don’t mean it’ll raise your IQ, which is a nonsense scale of “intelligence;” but this skill will help you in all your social interactions. Just think of how unsatisfied you felt the last time your friend told you a boring story, or a movie you were enjoying had an awful ending. Such endings often ruin the whole experience, or at least the lasting impression of it. With practice, that kind of thing can be avoided.

Very rare is a fool who can tell a good story, but a good story can certainly be butchered by a fool.



Lacey S, Stilla R, & Sathian K (2012). Metaphorically feeling: comprehending textural metaphors activates somatosensory cortex. Brain and language, 120 (3), 416-21 PMID: 22305051

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