The art of storytelling: why we relate to characters.
Listen to this article
For thousands of years, humans have relied on storytelling to engage, to share emotions and to relate personal experiences. Now, psychologists are exploring mechanisms deep within the brain to better understand just what happens when we communicate.
New research published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, suggests that no matter how a narrative is expressed—through words, gestures or drawings—our brains relate best to the characters, focusing on the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist of each story.
What the researchers say: “We tell stories in conversation each and every day,” explains the lead author of the study. “Very much like literary stories, we engage with the characters and are wired to make stories people-oriented.”
The question researchers set out to answer was how, exactly, narrative ideas are communicated using three different forms of expression, and to identify a so-called narrative hub within the brain.
For the study, researchers scanned the brains of participants using fMRI and presented them with short headlines. For example, “Surgeon finds scissors inside of patient” or “Fisherman rescues boy from freezing lake.” They were then asked to convey the stories using speech, gestures or drawing.
Researchers found that no matter what form of story telling the participants used, the brain networks that were activated were the “theory-of-the-mind” network (the neurological systems that enable our understanding of people as mental beings, each with his or her own mental states–such as thoughts, wants, motives, beliefs, intentions and feelings).
“Aristotle proposed 2,300 years ago that plot is the most important aspect of narrative, and that character is secondary,” says Brown. “Our brain results show that people approach narrative in a strongly character-centered and psychological manner, focused on the mental states of the protagonist of the story.” Plot, or facts, are secondary.
So, what? The interesting thing about this study is that it focuses on what the human system (not just the brain but the whole of those neurogenetic elements that we now classify as “mind”) is primarily interested in—the actions and emotions of other human beings. We’ve known for some time that learning is deepened and more easily remembered if it is communicated by way of a story.
We now know that this is because the system is not interested in the facts of what is learned—it is interested in how it is learned. And the most powerful how is relating the facts we want to impart in the context of a story. We remember the information as a by-product of remembering the story
Join the discussion
More from this issue of TR
You might be interested inBack to Today's Research
Love actually: Americans agree on what makes people "feel the love"
Strong men, dictators and authoritarian CEOs rely on fear rather than love. But leaders who show love to their followers and acknowledge their strengths and try earnestly to meet their needs produce better, more harmonious and vastly more productive societies and businesses.
Use of electrical brain stimulation to foster creativity has sweeping implications.
What is creativity, and can it be enhanced—safely—in a person who needs a boost of imagination? There is a growing use of electrical devices that stimulate brain tissue (for depression for example), and some experts believe there is potential value in the technique—despite a number of recent studies which have thrown doubt on the results. However, use of these machines also raises neuro-ethical, legal, and social issues that must be addressed.
Join our tribe
Subscribe to Dr. Bob Murray’s Today’s Research, a free weekly roundup of the latest research in a wide range of scientific disciplines. Explore leadership, strategy, culture, business and social trends, and executive health.