Stories keep audiences engaged and leave them with an emotional impact that continues to resonate long after the story is over. Advertisers have known this fact for a long time – advertisements with a story consistently demonstrate better recall months after airing. Stories are more memorable and more persuasive than simply communicating facts.
On Wednesday, 21 November 2018, we invited our learning community to explore storytelling in learning. Braving lashing winds and biting rain, we gathered in Huckletree to hear about storytelling from Celine Mullins, an expert in psychology and neuroscience, and Mary Kate O’Flanagan, an award-winning writer and story consultant.
The psychology and neuroscience of storytelling
Celine began by telling us a story about a shy girl who had to overcome her paralysing self-consciousness to follow her dreams. She asked the audience how they felt listening to her story. The audience responded to say they felt anxiety, empathy and connection. They cared about the outcome for the little girl and desired to know the end of her story. Celine used the audience's emotions in response to the child's predicament to show how stories affect us.
How Story Works in the Brain
Many educators, writers and content creators instinctively understand the power of story to increase the engagement, attention and concentration of learners. Neuroscience can now tell us that story lights up many areas of the brain in the person listening, watching or reading. We now comprehend more clearly how humans respond emotionally to stories and the impact of this emotional arousal on memory. This effect can be harnessed positively by educators who can create meaningful stories with emotional cues that result in enhanced memory of the topic by the learner.
Celine explained how story works in the human brain, and how story can intensify human learning. She described how stories produce neurochemicals that persist after the story has ended. She helped us understand how stories can act as powerful agents of change in the habits and behaviour of learners.
We are often not aware of our bodies’ micro-responses to the world around us. A story that engages us sets in motion a subtle yet powerful full-body response. You feel the story in your body. When we are anxious for a character in a story, we release adrenaline, increasing our heart rate, and norepinephrine, raising our blood pressure. Our focus on the story is intent – we are hooked. Our capacity to concentrate is now supercharged. If the threat to the hero is sustained in the story, our bodies release cortisol. Now we are worried about the outcome and our body resonates with the imagined danger the hero faces. We feel empathy for the character in the story as our bodies release oxytocin, the neurochemical that signals trust and closeness in humans. Our bodies react to our imaginary hero as if he were a real person we cared about.
The brain is a social organ – we are profoundly sensitive to what’s going on the social world around us. Belonging to a social group ensures our survival – social exclusion means death. We exist to connect. Stories help us resonate with the experiences of others and drive us to feel viscerally connected to their fate – increasing our empathy, not just towards the imaginary character, but towards people in real-life.
When the hero overcomes the obstacles blocking her path, our body responds with signals of pleasure and satisfaction activating the brain’s reward system with a release of dopamine. We are often not aware of these subtle inner sensations that stories arouse in us. We are certainly rarely aware of how these unconscious impulses impact our beliefs and behaviour. We are moved – not just by the story – but to action that persists after the story has ended.