The Science of Storytelling & Why it Matters

The Science of Storytelling can explain just how important and influential stories can be in our lives. Stories are everywhere – we use stories to learn, to engage and to escape from the things around us. They're more than just children's entertainment, stories have the ability to make you laugh or cry, feel anger or empathy, to see beyond the words on the page and into a new world that is different from our own.

A story pulls you in, for the moment of engaging with it, it is our own world, it is our day to day experiences that effect how we perceive and interpret the story. Different people will understand different meanings behind a story, as a result of their daily lives and experiences. We can relate to stories and as a result they inspire us, they have the power to change the way we think and feel.

Stories affect us.

Given a data-sheet with bullet points and littered with information, our brains often switch off. We may manage to pull out the necessary information, but the words don't have the same impact. They don’t affect us. There is a science behind why we respond so well to stories. The Science of Storytelling. It explains why our brains react to certain elements of text and language more than others and shows how they become more active when we tell stories in comparison to plain information.

How our brains respond:

When we’re presented with facts and plain information there are only two main areas in our brain that light up – these are called the Wernicke and Broca areas. As a result, heavily fact-orientated texts can often be challenging for the brain and, result in a lack of stimulus, boring.

However, when presented with a story, our brain is activated in a number of different areas, causing what we are hearing/reading to become more exciting to us, also meaning that we are less likely to forget it. The way in which they are told causes different parts of our brain react to the different parts of the story, in turn causing a much wider selection of areas across it to become engaged.

For example, words associated with processing texture and sensation such as “His feet were numb” or “She gently placed her hand upon the smooth, cool surface” stimulate the Sensory cortex and cerebellum, whereas anything about physical movement “She jumped at the sound”, “He paced the room” causes a reaction in the Motor cortex. Smells and memories of smells stimulate the Olfactory cortex, “The smell of old books”, “An unpleasant odour” and the Visual cortex responds to colour and shape – “The shiny red phone sat askew to the pile of documents”. Finally, sounds such as “The persistent ringing of the phone” stimulate the Auditory cortex.

A good story transports its audience to a place where they feel like they're there. They feel like they're experiencing it. As a result, one story can engage the brain in many different ways, and means that we are more engaged and affected by the information, and so more likely to remember and act upon it.

Why stories are so personal to us:

When reading or listening to a story, different people will interpret its meaning in different ways. This is because stories are relatable to us, and we use our daily lives and experiences in interpreting the story. We emphasise with the people and situations by either creating a likeness to a previous experience of our own, or by putting ourselves into the new situation, deciding what we ourselves would do, and then comparing this to what the characters/people do. In turn, this causes us to sympathize or feel angry with them, and the story becomes more and more realistic to us. Whenever we hear or read a story, we want to relate it to one of our existing experiences.

This is also why metaphors work so well, as we find something we can compare the situation or object to. When we search for similar experiences, we activate a part of our brain called the insula, which helps us relate these to emotions, to experience the same feeling of pain, joy, or disgust. This means that, because we are each comparing the story to our differing previous experiences, we will all interpret a story differently. The meanings behind stories are unique to us, and this is what makes them so powerful.

In the words of the late Alan Rickman “a film, a piece of theatre, a piece of music, or a book can make a difference, it can change the world”

“If you wish to influence an individual or a group to embrace a particular value in their daily lives, tell them a compelling story.” -Annette Simmons

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